SHAWNEE, Kan. ― The walls and shelves of Suzanne Wheeler’s home office in this tidy middle-class suburb of Kansas City are filled with awards and memorabilia from her 32 years in the Army. At the height of her career, she was in charge of plans, operations and training for the Kansas National Guard, responsible for 7,400 soldiers and airmen. She did combat tours in Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and retired last year as a colonel.
Dressed in white sandals and a flowing bright shell, she walks over to a table and picks up an elegant wood-handled Army combat knife.
“The knife was given to me at retirement. It’s my favorite retirement gift,” Wheeler says.
Engraved on the handle is a quote from a 1910 speech by Teddy Roosevelt: “The credit belongs to the man who’s actually in the arena.” On the back side of the knife is the name — Howard E. Wheeler. “Oh, that’s my old name,” she says casually. “A lot of the retirement gifts came in my old name.”
Wheeler started taking hormones about a year and a half before her retirement. It was six months before President Barack Obama lifted the ban on transgender people serving in the military.
Her face and body began to change quickly, she says. People asked if she was sick.
She shopped for baggier uniforms as she developed breasts and hips, and found herself sneaking around, making sure she was the last one in the shower after workouts, dressing in private.
It didn’t take long for her to decide to come out to her leaders.
“The general who I came out to had known me for a very, very long time,” she says. “Pretty conservative guy. I told him what was going on, and when we got all done, he got up and gave me a big hug.”
Other colleagues offered similar support. One was a friend, a conservative Southern Baptist from rural Tennessee. “I was really worried about him,” she says. “He got up and said, ‘You know, Wheeler, I don’t know much about the whole transgender thing, but I know you and I will always love you.’”
Many trans men and women, once they transition, refer to the names they were given at birth as “dead names.” Wheeler doesn’t. She points to a faded 4-by-6 photograph of herself as a captain at Fort Riley, Kansas, surrounded by some of the troops she commanded. In the picture, she projects an image as masculine as any on a vintage Army recruitment poster. She doesn’t want to forget that person.
“All of those folks in that picture, I can still name their names,” she says. “It would dismiss all of them from my past, and that wouldn’t be right.”
Data on the transgender population in the military is scarce. The armed forces historically haven’t tracked this demographic.
And even though Obama lifted a long-standing ban on military service for trans men and women in July 2016, many service members who’ve come out say they know others who have stayed in the closet.
Before Obama’s ruling, his administration commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation on the impact of trans men and women in the military. The report concluded that the annual cost of serving the health care needs of active-duty trans soldiers would be minuscule ― between $2.4 million and $8.4 million ― compared with the Pentagon’s multibillion-dollar budget. A 2015 New England Journal of Medicine report found the same thing.
The Rand study examined how trans enlistees have affected the military in other countries, finding “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness or readiness.”
Another study, from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, suggests there are as many as 15,000 trans people who’ve served in the armed forces, with more than 8,000 currently on active duty. It goes on to say that trans men and women most likely serve in disproportionately higher numbers than the general population.
So when President Donald Trump outlined his plan to reinstate the ban in a series of tweets in August, the transgender community reacted with confusion and fear. The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have said they will consider recommendations in the White House proposal.
They have until March to decide.
There has long been a strong military culture in and around Kansas City.
The area is home to a number of large military posts. The Veterans of Foreign Wars is headquartered here. But the president’s action is seen as the latest attack on the civil rights of the trans community as a whole. Advocates have already filed lawsuits in Washington state and Maryland challenging its constitutionality.
“It was nerve-wracking,” says Madeline Johnson, who was a Polish and German interpreter for the Army in the late 1980s. She didn’t transition until much later, and is now a Kansas City attorney who mostly represents trans men and women.
Johnson says she knew from the time she was little that her real gender wasn’t the one she’d been assigned at birth. Growing up, she was so miserable, she sometimes fantasized about driving her car into oncoming traffic.
The military seemed like a reasonable way to convince her conservative Southern Baptist family, her friends, and perhaps most of all herself that she wasn’t the sissy ― or worse, the sinner ― that she’d be labeled if she came out.
“But I was adamantly denying, of course, that I was gay or transgender or anything,” Johnson says. “So I was deeply closeted... deeply in denial... yet at the same time... I wore women’s underwear under my uniform.”
Ceri Anne Lewis grew up in rural Minnesota. She joined the Navy during the Reagan years as a photographer in a high-security intelligence post.
“If I tell you any more I’ll have to kill you,” she quips.
Lewis says she, too, came from a fundamentalist Christian background and repressed early feelings that she was trans. “That was the farthest thing from what I wanted to [be],” she says. Also, she knew that coming out would mean an immediate discharge from the Navy. She’d known people who’d had that experience.
Today, Lewis has come back to her religious roots.
Standing before a small LGBT support group on a recent evening at one of Kansas City’s largest and most progressive churches, United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, she describes the revelation that freed her to accept her true gender identity.
“When I was 50, I had a weekend home alone and I had the urge to dress,” she says, brushing her thin, long hair behind her shoulders. “I was looking at myself in the hall mirror in my home.” Her voice drops almost to a whisper. “I heard a voice over my shoulder that said... ‘You can do this.’”
She wasn’t sure what “this” was, but today, she travels the country identifying herself as “a transgender woman and a Christian.” She has a PowerPoint presentation in which she cites passages from Scripture that underscore her interpretation of the Bible — that God excludes no one.
“From Galatians 3:28,” she says, looking up at a screen that displays her slides. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Lewis sees her message as particularly relevant in the wake of a controversial document the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released in August. The so-called “Nashville Statement” was signed by thousands of evangelical educators, pastors, advocates and leaders. It lays out what the signatories claim is the biblical case against same-sex marriage and transgender identity, among other things.
Neither the Nashville Statement nor the military ban has deterred Carmen Xavier. In fact, what she sees as a recent escalation in hostile rhetoric has only inspired her to get more involved.
“[I] grew up in a household with FDR right next to Jesus Christ on the wall,” she says. “My mother and father raised me to respect the office of the presidency of these United States of America.”
Xavier grew up on Kansas City’s West Side, historically home to many of the area’s Mexican and Mexican-American families. She enlisted in the Army at the height of the Vietnam War and spent five years in the Medical Corps in Bitburg, Germany, providing treatment to American soldiers.
She came home and spent the next several decades in and out of college, doing community work and holding elected office on her local school board and county legislature.
But, she says, she was not living her authentic life.
“I was not Carmen Xavier,” she says, sitting at her kitchen table in Smithville, Missouri. It’s a small bedroom community, just north of Kansas City, where she recently moved.
“If it serves the purpose, my dead name was Frederico Sanchez, or Fred, as I used to be called.”
Her name is familiar to those in Kansas City’s political inner circle. Xavier became politically active prior to her transition, after her father was killed crossing a new highway that ran through her community. She helped organize the effort to build an overpass. Later, she was elected to her local school board and then to the Jackson County legislature. She’s worked in the back rooms of many political campaigns.
Building on her military service in the Medical Corps, Xavier pursued an education in nursing, specializing to become a nurse-anesthetist. She studied in the Kansas City area and in California, where she met other trans women who supported her in her transition.
In 2010, she made a decision.
“I made a commitment in the presence of other trans women on Mission Bay, San Diego... to proceed with transition,” she says proudly. “It was at that birth ceremony I was given my name, Carmen Xavier.”
Xavier’s move to Smithville has been challenging.
Not long after she moved in, she raised her rainbow flag up the pole in her front yard. Vandals soon pelted her windows with eggs and threw paint balloons against her garage door. She felt scared, and began to sleep with a handgun under her pillow.
The silver lining, she says, is that the local officer who responded to her call has become a dear friend. Officer Chris Mendoza — who, it turns out, was the first Latino on the Smithville force, and who grew up not far from Xavier’s home in Kansas City ― now stops by regularly to check on her. “The first time he came in,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion, “he said that he would take care of me.”
Even though the rhetoric coming out of Washington rattles Xavier, she’s decided to re-enter the political arena with a run for the Smithville school board next spring.
“I’m a different kind of soldier now. I’m a citizen,” Xavier says.
“Caitlyn Jenner is not the only issue affecting America. Joe Six-pack has problems. Tom I-lost-my-job Smith has problems. I think transgender people... need to extend a hand and say, ‘I’m willing to discuss your issue.’”
Challenges remain for many of the 5,000 to 10,000 people in the Kansas City metropolitan area who identify as gender-nonconforming. Violence against trans women of color, for example, is disproportionately high in the metro area.
Many rural communities can be hostile to trans people. Just last month, a young trans girl in southern Missouri was murdered and mutilated. Both Kansas and Missouri voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and have state legislatures debating anti-LGBTQ policies.
Suzanne Wheeler always has, and always will, consider herself a patriot.
She’s also a mentor to young people at LGBT support groups throughout the Midwest.
She says many who are struggling to define their gender identity are politically aware, and they’re scared of decisions like the military ban and the recent memo from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that excluded gender identity from civil rights protections.
“They know these decisions could affect them their entire lives,” she says. “They see [military service] as a way forward for themselves... They want to serve the cause of freedom because they want freedom themselves.”