One Year After Military Ban Announcement, Transgender Veterans Explain the Importance of Protecting All Americans from Discrimination

Transgender Veterans Share Their Stories

About This Story Collection

One year out from President Trump's announcement of a planned ban on transgender military service, Freedom For All Americans highlights the stories of transgender vets from across the United States who have served their country at the utmost level, and believe that all people who have the desire to enlist should be able to do so without fear of hiding who they are.

Transgender Alaskan Veteran Emphasizes Need for Protections

MoHogani Magnatek • Anchorage, AK

This story is adapted from our partners at Fair Anchorage

At the end of MoHagani Magnetek’s 8 years in the US Coast Guard, the Pentagon began taking steps to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), the discriminatory policy that barred open service for gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from 1993 to 2011.

But transgender service members would have to wait an additional five years, until 2016, to serve openly—a policy change the Trump Administration has now reversed.

But MoHagani’s more immediate concern is local: Proposition 1 would repeal non-discrimination protections for transgender people under Anchorage law. If Proposition 1 passes next year, and Anchorage’s non-discrimination protections for transgender people are repealed, it could very well invite this kind of harassment as a new norm in Alaska’s largest city. Proposition 1 would allow strangers to demand to check the sex on a person’s birth certificate before allowing them to access certain public facilities.

MoHagani has hope, though, that voters will make the right choice when they go to the polls next April. After all, she says, transgender people are becoming more visible in communities across the country every day—and as more Anchorage residents get to know their transgender neighbors, family and friends, they too will come to realize that there’s simply no good reason to roll back the city’s laws ensuring fair and equal treatment for everyone.

Retired Colonel Reflects on Time in Military and Need for Authentic Service

Sheri Swokowski • Madison, WI

“I don’t know if I would have done anything different with my career and my life,” Sheri Swokowski said, reflecting on her 34 years in the United States Army, the last 22 of which she spent on active duty and from which she retired as a Colonel. But when she thinks back to her time in the military, serving before she could be out about the fact that she is transgender, she knows how impactful it would have been if the military had permitted open service for transgender people.

“I basically sacrificed my authenticity for four or five decades – not only out of respect for my family, but for the job that I loved,” Sheri said. “I wonder how much better of a person I could have been had I been allowed to transition while serving my country.”

That’s why Sheri is celebrating the fact that transgender individuals have been free to serve openly and honestly for a full year now. “The ban cost so many people their careers … I’m just so elated that these folks now who are trans and who are serving are able to serve the country authentically, like 18 of our international allies have for many years.”

As the highest ranking openly transgender individual in U.S. military history, Sheri has lived a long and decorated life. But it’s also been a life where she has had to resist discrimination often. Following her retirement as a career infantry officer, she served as a lead course instructor at the U.S. Army Force Management School in Virginia – but when she transitioned in 2007 and tried to return to work, she was promptly fired, with no legal recourse to correct her employment discrimination. Four months later, Sheri was hired to work at the Pentagon as a senior analyst.

“It’s difficult to help people understand if they’ve never been in that position,” she explained. “When the director at the school said they had found my replacement, I realized that my skill set hadn’t changed. I was the same person I was before transition, with regard to qualifications. And while my skills must not have been good enough for the contractor – they were more than welcome at the table at the Pentagon.”

Now Sheri continues to be a voice calling for fully comprehensive non-discrimination protections that cover all Americans, including transgender people. Just months ago, she spoke about the need for these protections in Wisconsin alongside lawmakers introducing a historic bill ensuring protections from discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

“We need to help people understand – and to do that, we need to tell our stories,” Sheri said. “It’s by far the best way, face to face, one to one, to explain our lives to people. We need to ensure people are looking at us as individuals, hearing our experiences, and hopefully understanding it.”

Why Non-Discrimination Protections Matter in New Hampshire

Matt Aversa • Manchester, NH

Story adapted from Freedom New Hampshire

From 1979 to 1982 Matt Aversa served in United States Air Force, first in the air force reserve and then in the air national guard. So when he completed his Master of Social Work in 1999 and got a job at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, he was proud to be serving fellow veterans once again. When Matt Aversa completed his Master of Social Work in 1999, he was elated to land a job at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire

Soon though, Matt soured on his job at the VA. Not because he didn’t love the work—but because his supervisor at the time became hostile after learning he was transgender. Although he got the job years after transitioning and changed his driver’s license, social security information and official name to be living as the gender he had always felt himself to me, some record of his female identity lingered in government databases. A hostile supervisor found the information quickly.

Matt’s supervisor confronted him about his trans identity via email and cc’d the hospital director, effectively outing him to the entire office. From that day on, he said, he always felt uncomfortable at work.

“She outed me to the whole hospital,” Matt explained. “And it’s not that anyone else had an issue, but it being a military culture, I didn’t know if anyone would be OK with that.”

After the incident, Matt decided to leave the VA and pursue social work in other settings. Luckily, he found his niche—treating LGBT patients at the Brattleboro Retreat, a mental health and addiction treatment center in Vermont. Now, he’s speaking out about the need for full non-discrimination protections covering transgender people across the country and in his home state of New Hampshire with Freedom New Hampshire.

“I don’t think, had the laws been in place at the time, she would have been so open about cc’ing me and my director. Now that more and more trans people are out and visible, I think it makes a lot of sense to make sure those protections are in place.”

Transgender Veteran Warns of Dangers of Rolling Back Protections for Any American

Kimberly Acoff • Fort Wayne, IN

Kimberly Acoff knows what it feels like to see such public, contentious debate about your fundamental dignity. That’s because Kimberly is a transgender woman and a veteran, having served in the Indiana National Guard for several years, years before the Department of Defense lifted the ban on open service for transgender people. Now that President Trump has proposed the ban again, leaving servicemembers in legal limbo, she has resurfaced unpleasant memories of needing to hide who she is in order to serve the country she loves.

“That’s not what this country is all about,” she told a local news station this summer. “We’re about giving an opportunity – not taking it away and stripping people of it.”

Kimberly lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, where she works for the Bureau of Developmental Disabilities Services. She’s previously worked for the Indiana Department of Child Services in Fort Wayne.

“History has shown us that we are a group of strong individuals – I speak from a history of knowing transgender people growing up in my young adult life, and I know that we are resilient, and that the American people in general are good-hearted people for the most part.”

She has been disturbed to see the Trump Administration roll back protections for transgender people – from transgender service members to transgender students. “When we restrict and roll back freedom for one group, we’re rolling back and restricting freedom for every American,” she said.

Challenges of Being Transgender Sparked Navy Vet’s Life of Public Service

Rachael Booth • Landaff, NH

Story Adapted from Freedom New Hampshire

For this United States Navy veteran, linguist, and avid outdoor enthusiast, gender transition was a matter of life and death—and it sparked a career in public service. Born male in a small town in Ohio, Rachael’s earliest memories are of wishing upon every shooting star that her body would be different. She spent early childhood running up to drinking fountains after her girl classmates in hopes of “catching” whatever it was that made them girls. It was a feeling Rachael hoped would go away with age, a wife, children and time in the service. But it didn’t: She could never shake the feeling that she was female, living life in the wrong gender.

After high school, Rachael joined the Navy in hopes of finding herself and seeing a world beyond rural Ohio. She worked as a foreign language interpreter and communications technician and served her country for 9 years. After 40 years of fighting her inner struggle, Rachael almost gave up but a good friend talked her through, making her realize that she had to make the change she’d always dreamed of. She understood now that it was less about courage and more about the conviction that this change would save her life. She told her employer she’d be transitioning. And to her surprise, a complete stranger in her place of work said, “I will put my job on the line before I will let this company discriminate against you in any way.”

While Rachael loves her life in New Hampshire and has clearly overcome hurdles to achieve her confident, determined outlook, she knows that many transgender people in the Granite State continue to struggle each and every day. In New Hampshire, there are no explicit statewide protections from discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodations—and that needs to change. No one should face discrimination for being who they are.

Everyone should be given a fair shot at achieving their dreams—that’s what Rachael is working on right now with her bid for office. But without explicit laws protecting transgender people from discrimination, our transgender loved ones are too often singled out, disadvantaged, and cast aside just for being who they are. It’s time for that to change—it’s time for full transgender equality in New Hampshire.

Transgender Veteran in Middleboro Shares Journey, Advocates Acceptance

Emma Morgaine Croft • Middleboro, MA

Story Adapted from Freedom for All Massachusetts

Emma Morgaine Croft spends most of her days lost in a cloud, in a very literal sense; for the past 15 years, she has worked for nationally recognized firm Dun & Bradstreet as a Cloud Ops technician, and lives in Middleboro, Massachusetts. It was while working with this company that Emma began to live as the woman she’s always known herself to be, and she says she was overwhelmed by the acceptance her colleagues and superiors showed her. “They totally accepted me for who I am. My CEO called me into his office to tell me he was so proud of me and that I impressed him.”

Although Emma says she is very happy with where she is in life right now, she acknowledges that it has taken her quite a journey to arrive there. As a child, she lived in a volatile environment. When Emma was a teenager, and began to use her voice, her father told her when she turned 18 she would need to find a new place to live.

To that end, after her 18th birthday, Emma enlisted in the Air Force, assigned to Little Rock, Arkansas in the 314th Combat Support Group: Services Division, where she would serve for four years and work her way up to the rank of Sergeant. 

During her time in the military, Emma said there was a definite understanding that gay people were among those serving, and that it didn’t affect morale or operations in any way. “We accepted it, it was no problem,” she explained. “I knew a lot of people who were gay or bisexual – I had no problems with them and neither did anyone else. That’s why I never understood Don’t Ask Don’t Tell – we already knew. We had it figured out,” she laughs.

One of the things Emma is grateful for is the law in her home state, that protects transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Unfortunately, those protections are being challenged by opponents of transgender equality. In 2018, the people of Massachusetts will go to the ballot to defend the Commonwealth’s non-discrimination law protecting transgender people from discrimination in public spaces like restaurants, retail shops and hospitals. For her part, Emma works to continue to educate and inform people about this issue – joining with Freedom for All Massachusetts in the historic campaign to uphold MA’s transgender-inclusive non-discrimination law. One way she tries to help is by being a public advocate, and familiarizing people with what it means to be transgender.

“There was a saying I had years ago,” she continued. ‘Get to know as much about me today as you can, because tomorrow I’ll be a new person.’ That’s all about evolving who we are. You have to believe that we are striving to evolve ourselves to be a better society, a more open society, a more accepting society. We just need to let people be who they are and accept them, plain and simple.”

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