Fighting A Culture War

"The military has given many trans people I’ve met a purpose and a way out."
Nicole, Derrick, and Anastasia (trans soldiers stationed at Ft. Irwin, California)
Nicole, Derrick, and Anastasia (trans soldiers stationed at Ft. Irwin, California)

Doesn’t it sort of feel like we all live on a planet made of egg shells instead of its earthly grace and strength sometimes? Nobody is immune from making assumptions. Nobody is immune from making mistakes. Most of us are not immune from separating ourselves from our past experiences and ideologies without a lot of work. Yet, due to these preceding, insidious ideas that carry over into our present lives, too often many of us believe we are somehow immune to these things. We live in a black and white society that is not very forgiving. Many of us exist in cultures that state someone is this one thing and will always be this one kind of person. Which, from my experience, none of this could be further from the truth and is a detrimental way to view humanity and the world at large.

Transilient was born out of my brain and I want to end the assumptions made about transgender people by the non-trans population. So, my team and I travel the country in hopes of doing this through candid interviews, photos, and video. I also want to show other trans people that we are beautiful, strong, funny, capable, and resilient humans. 

I am bi-partisan in my work but still a human with my own opinions and someone who grew up in poverty and was traumatized by those with authority, through bureaucracy, and some who have identified as cis, particularly, cis white men. This is probably true for many people. So, when I met up to interview three trans folks serving in the army for Transilient’s 2017 #SummerofTrans tour, I felt afraid they wouldn't like me because of some of my ideas around how our country works.

You see, just because I am trans doesn’t mean I don’t see these folks in their uniform as something foreign to me on the street. I have even had people in my life the military and yes, I still have looked at those in the military in a binary and as if I can’t relate to them- so therefor, they are not like me. Or I did before my conversation with these three.

‍I didn't go into the interview having judgements about these folks but I assumed that they would believe I was unpatriotic. I assumed they would feel offended by some of my stances surrounding our country, the one they put their lives on the line for, and to be honest I hadn't made myself quite this uncomfortable doing my work yet. From my experience too, I've learned making yourself uncomfortable in work, particularly social justice work, is a good sign.

I have so much love for every person I interview with Transilient. Sometimes, just out of human nature, lived experience, and energy, I connect more with certain people I interview than others. I only feel like out of the 100 interviews I’ve conducted with trans people I’ve struggled to connect with 2 folks. I was worried the soldiers would read up on me (ya know, the internet..I'm a writer) and be like "Wow. This guy!" and we’d have an awkward exchange.

Fear aside, I’m in the trade of heart opening. I give a little of myself to open folks up but try to keep it so that the other person has the space to speak freely and candidly. These two women and one man, well, they opened my heart in a big way. I still gave them space and we had good conversations and I can’t fully explain to you what happened for me. But, I know that many of my assumptions were destroyed. I know that I am grateful for them. I know that the work they do is good and it seems like they enjoy their work. I know that they have a similar life experience to me, the same wants, needs, desires, and joys as many of us. I know that they were beautiful.

From Left to Right: Nicole, Basil, Derrick, and Anastasia
From Left to Right: Nicole, Basil, Derrick, and Anastasia

So, Here’s a breakdown of my internal processing of the past week:

When Donald Trump tweeted out into the world that trans folks serving in the military was going to come to an end due to our existence being a burden, my initial response was, “Well, that’s a ridiculous way to discriminate! But, I mean nobody should be in wars. Wars are terrible and things like the militarization of the police is terrible and I wouldn’t want to be in the military anyhow.”

Then after 30 seconds, I thought about my time in High School and when I was in the JROTC. I had joined because I was bullied by most kids around me. I was secretly trans and HATED gym class. I took JROTC so I wouldn’t have to change in the locker room and I could wear my uniform to school. I wanted to prove that I was more than just a punk to my Dad and I wasn’t sure what I would do with my life in South Carolina. 

So moments after the Donald Tweet: I paused and then thought, “Damn. The military has given many trans people I’ve met a purpose and a way out. You’ve seen people live in poverty, get out of situations and go to college because of it. The military has employed trans folks when many other institutions wouldn’t. You thought about joining the Air Force when you were 19 so you could go to school. The military exists and it has helped and made many trans people happy and they have made great contributions in their work. Is it terrible across the board?”

When I left these three I thought, “Wow. You walk around in the world just assuming that a uniform makes it so this person is nothing like you and you couldn’t be more wrong. You’re kind of just like cis people who assume things about trans people based on presentation.”

Currently, I am excited to absorb what I’ve learned from meeting with the trans soldiers.They taught me about humility. They taught me about perseverance and a kind of bravery that is different from mine and I’d say many trans people’s. Not because they fight in wars, though I don’t think I could do that considering you won’t see me run much further than a block after an ice cream truck and I cry when I have to kill a spider, but because everything is against them. Yeah, the world is not designed for trans people but the military especially isn’t. I learned that they don’t care about my politics and they do the job they do in hopes of giving me the freedom to have and say them. I was also warmed and touched to learn how many people in each person’s unit supported their transition and how they have a strong community and camaraderie. How amazing is that? Also, how shocking is that to so many? I’m learning that it shouldn’t be and it doesn’t have to be.  

Finally, I am learning that the duality that exists in the soldiers lives is not something I could withstand but they do it, because they have to and it benefits them.

Nicole and Anastasia are both Moms. One loves history and the other plays guitar! Derrick is a guy who gets a lot out of anime and drawing. The three of them were warm, open, and loving and people who I’d like to continue to get to know. Also, they were honestly so so beautiful and kind and the type of people who I aspire to be more like. They are more than trans but they are also more than service members.

Derrick wrote me after Transilient met with all them from Ft. Irwin and he thanked me for giving them an opportunity to be heard. But, I should thank them for changing me forever and becoming a part of our giant trans cross country family. So, thank you Anastasia, Nicole, and Derrick. You folks gave me what I try to give the rest of the world: a safe place to smash assumptions and gain connection. Thank you for being who you are and doing what you do.

This post was originally posted on Transilient’s blog here.

Click here to access more information about the project, the Transilient Team, and full interviews from our #SummerOfTrans tour with the National Center for Transgender Equality.