Transgender Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Reflects on Moving From Service to Activism

Taryn Wilson • Panama City, FL

While Taryn Wilson is looking forward to her retirement from the U.S. Navy in August after 23 years of service, she makes it very clear that she is not retiring because of the current Presidential administration or its treatment of transgender people — rather, she wants to travel, spend time with her girlfriend, and then get right to work advocating for the rights of LGBTQ youth. However, she doesn’t hold back about her reaction to the Trump-Pence administration’s proposed ban on open military service for transgender Soldiers, tweeted by the President in July 2017 and now blocked in four separate legal cases.

“I felt betrayed…it was absolutely betrayal of the highest order. How can the President say we’re unfit to serve, when the average length of military service by transgender people is 8 to 12 years? Who did he talk to about this? Who are these people? I will say, that within 15 minutes of the announcement, I had people knocking on my door to see if I was OK — a lot of them people who would never have talked to me before I came out as transgender. We know we’re going into a fight. I’ll never not feel betrayed by that. But that is not the reason I’m retiring.”

Taryn enlisted in September of 1995 and she said she was motivated by her desire to learn a trade, in addition to wanting to get out of her small town of just over 400 people.

“I liked working on cars, and I knew the military would give me the chance to become a mechanic,” she said. “But I also wanted to get out of my town — the entire economy was based around when it snowed and when the snow melted, and I didn’t want to live my life like that. Plus, all the good jobs were held by middle-aged and older men, and as a young person, I wouldn’t have the chance to go for those jobs. It was also a very conservative place, and I needed out.”

Taryn said that when she was between the ages of 10 and 12, years before her transition from male to female, she first started to feel that she was different from the other boys she saw at school and in the neighborhood.

“That’s when I started noticing things, kind of around the start of puberty,” she explained. “I hated looking at myself in the mirror — it made me really uncomfortable. I wanted to dress in girls’ clothes, and I knew it wasn’t an option. It’s certainly not something we would have EVER talked about in my family.”

Taryn hoped that enlisting in the military would somehow suppress these feelings and make them disappear.

“I kind of hoped everything would go away, especially being in such a masculine environment. But it was also very, very homophobic. The Sailors weren’t shy at all about saying that if they caught a gay person, they’d beat the crap out of him and throw him down a ladder. That terrified me, because I didn’t want to come off as someone who could ever be ‘pegged’ as gay, so I was closeted for a very long time.”

However, Taryn said that during times she was able to go on leave in ports around the world, she would take the opportunity to dress up and experiment, secretly away from her ship.

“I was able to sort of explore my identity when I was on leave. It started in Japan — I explored, dressed up a bit, had some fun. But for a long time, because I couldn’t be open about who I was, I buried myself and my identity in my work. I’d commonly work 16 hours a day just to try and stop thinking about everything.”

“People began to notice that, too,” she said. “I’d have BBQs at my house and the wives of the Sailors would ask me questions like ‘You’re so successful, when are you going to get married?’ I always just said I was too busy,” she said.

In 2010, with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the policy that prohibited gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from serving openly in the U.S. military, Taryn was hopeful she might be able to be live openly as herself while continuing to serve, but she was devastated when she learned that would not be the truth, as the repeal did not have any direct impact on open service for transgender service members.

“I was so disappointed. I began to think I would never see the day when transgender people could serve in the military as who they were, without having to hide.”

When President Obama announced in 2016 that the longstanding ban on transgender military service would end, Taryn was still apprehensive about fully coming out to her peers and superiors; she had planned on transitioning after her retirement. She says it was a young enlistee who changed her mind.

“I was working alongside the young sailor, and he was planning to come out and live openly as a transgender male. I didn’t want him to feel like he was alone, and that’s what pushed me over the edge to say ‘I can do this.’”

After she transitioned, Taryn says she found large swaths of support from her command, and that people who hadn’t known a transgender person would seek her out to learn more and ask questions.

“I made a decision when I transitioned — my job is very public in nature; I’m in front of Sailors and civilian employees all day long, my name is next to the front gate, my picture is all over base. I didn’t have the ability to transition and be private about it. So I decided that I was going to be vocal, open, and honest about transition for others who feel they aren’t ready to make that step yet.” 

Leaving the military after 23 years of service, Taryn is making a second transition — this time, career-wise. For the last two years, she has worked with the Panama City chapter of PFLAG as their Transgender Outreach Coordinator. Soon, she will begin working with TransAction Florida, part of Equality Florida, and has taken an active role in updating their Transgender Resource Guide, a listing of businesses, individuals, and services who are transgender-friendly.

Living in Florida, Taryn is well aware that she lacks statewide protections from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Although the Florida Competes coalition has worked diligently over the past several years to build momentum for comprehensive LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, legislation has not yet been passed. Taryn says that people who aren’t regularly affected by the issue don’t see it as a problem, and it’s something she hopes to change.

“When you come from a place of privilege, you don’t see the problem and don’t think about it. A lot of people get wrapped around the axle and say things like ‘you want special treatment,’ and we don’t. I just don’t want to get fired because you may or may not know I’m transgender. I had this very discussion with some state congresspersons at a lobby day, and this is just one reason why we need to pass a bill in Florida.”

“I have a very good friend who is transgender that literally has the qualifications to be a school principal but can’t even get a job in my county as a teacher. There are others less qualified than her who are getting jobs left and right. When you see something like that, it’s horrible. It’s disgusting, and that’s part of the reason I do what I do here on the local level. I hope we can shine a light on that and show examples of some of the discrimination that happens.”

Taryn’s next steps include working with groups in schools and talking to students and professionals alike about what it means to be transgender, and why it is important that transgender people are afforded the same dignity and opportunities as everyone else.

“If it wasn’t for groups like PFLAG, I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “They gave me an outlet to be myself and express my feelings. I want to do that for younger people — I want them to have opportunities I never did. I am in a position to give something back, and that is exactly what I plan to do.”

Master Chief Petty Officer Taryn Wilson will be retiring in August after 23 years of service in the United States Navy. This story was produced in collaboration with the ASK & TELL Project, an organization working to tell the stories of active and veteran LGBTQ military personnel. Visit their website here: http://www.askandtell.com



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