Last summer when news broke that the Department of Defense was at long last ending the ban on open service for transgender people, Cathy Serino knew how many people’s lives would be impacted for the better – and how deeply and significantly the change would be felt for the many transgender Americans serving in the military.
“It’s going to make for a better military,” Cathy said. “You have these people like myself who had to bottle it all up, and now these people are going to be able to serve openly and focus their attention on doing what they have to do, regardless of their speciality.”
As a trans person, I’ve been denied employment, I’ve been denied health care, I’ve been dragged out of bathrooms and beaten up.Cathy Serino
Cathy served in the United States National Guard from 1986 until 1998, before her transition from male to female. As a service member Cathy worked as a mechanic and a truck driver, based largely in Missouri. At the time, being outed as LGBT meant being discharged from the service.
“I was closeted, obviously, and it was a major distraction for me,” Cathy said. “I was always so worried about being found out that it distracted me from doing my job. I was so worried about saying something or doing something that would set off a red flag.”
The end to the ban is of course a positive step for the prominent inclusion of transgender people in the basic fabric of American society – in fact, the news this summer meant that one of the nation’s largest employers was leading the way to demonstrating that discrimination against transgender people is wrong.
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Now under a new presidential administration that many few as hostile to the efforts of the LGBT community, some advocates are worried about whether the guarantee of open service for transgender people might be rolled back.
“I think it’s great that trans people will be able to serve openly, as long as they don’t reverse it,” Cathy said.
Cathy identifies as a political centrist – “I’ve voted both ways in the past,” she said – and as such, she’s been frustrated about the divided partisanship in the United States right now. “I’m kind of stuck in the middle. I wish that there were more centrist people here.”
Regardless of political views, Cathy knows that maintaining open service for transgender people is just the right thing to do – and the smart thing to do.
“Now that you have people who can be themselves, they can focus on their work.”
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Cathy now lives in Linn, a small town just outside of Jefferson City, Missouri. After her time in the military, she hopped around to a few jobs – mechanical jobs, working offshore for a bit – and now, she is disabled while working full-time as an advocate for LGBT issues and transgender inclusion.
“My body might be a mess, but my mouth still works just fine,” she laughed.
The advocacy is somewhat new for Cathy. After coming out more than six years ago as transgender and beginning her transition, she is now beginning to see the value of her voice in the ongoing fight to secure full equality for transgender people.
Missouri is one of 32 states where LGBT people are not fully protected from discrimination in employment, housing, or public spaces like businesses, restaurants, public transit or other public accommodations. Without comprehensive protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people will continue to suffer discrimination with no legal recourse available to them.
At the local level Cathy often makes the short drive to the Capitol in Jefferson City to lobby lawmakers, speak out against anti-LGBT legislation, and stand up in favor of proactive efforts to pass greater, more inclusive non-discrimination protections for LGBT people. She loves working on statewide events like Pride celebrations and LGBT community gatherings. And she is advocating increasingly on the national level – last year she attended the GLAAD Media Awards and the United State of Women summit sponsored by the White House. She is also an apprentice in Freedom for All Americans’ LGBT University program, dedicated to training the next wave of leaders in the movement for LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections.
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Fighting against discrimination isn’t just an ideal that Cathy cares about – it’s something to which she has an extreme personal connection. “As a trans person, I’ve been denied employment, I’ve been denied health care, I’ve been dragged out of bathrooms and beaten up. I’ve definitely had my fair share of discrimination,” she said.
In that sense, she is advocating on behalf of her own experiences and working to ensure that others like her will not face the same challenges moving forward. “I don’t want to have to face discrimination myself, and I’ve had my fair share of it, but I also want to help better the lives of people who come after me.”
“I’m really passionate about this,” she continued. “I know about this, because I live it every day. I tell everyone that this isn’t so much to better my own life, but it’s to better the lives of my grandchildren’s generation, and hopefully they don’t have to do this. I want to make a difference for the younger generation, and that’s a big driving force. That’s what drives me.”
Cathy has three granddaughters, and they’re the epitome of the next generation – the people who Cathy is working to build a better future for, a future where no one faces discrimination because of who they are, a future where everyone is treated with respect, dignity, and fairness.
She is also, in some way, hoping to set a positive example for her granddaughters of the importance of fighting for what you believe in and for what matters to you.
“They just know me as Grandma,” Cathy said. “And I want my grandchildren when they grow up to be able to get on the Internet and look and see all the good things Grandma did. I want to leave something behind for my family, something good that they can remember me for.”