I’ve served my country for 25 years now. I’ve been a commissioned officer for 17 of those years, and a full-time Active Guard and Reserve officer for the past eight years. I have served at echelons of the organization from Team Leader to Joint Staff. I’ve served in command and on staff; I’ve mobilized and deployed. I’ve had a pretty diverse and interesting career. I’m also the first openly-serving transgender officer in the Ohio Army National Guard to complete the Army’s in-service gender transition process.
Initially I had no intention of coming out to the military. I was certain the professional cost would be too high – but then I heard about three younger service members who wanted to exercise their rights to transition gender under what was then a new Department of Defense policy. It made me feel like I was hiding behind the most vulnerable of our members; that I was letting them lead where I feared to tread. For me to silently watch their struggles; withholding my own support out of fear of the cost, was contrary to my personal values and those of our Service. So I resolved to commit myself to truly living our values; to do any and all I could to help our organization learn and adapt to supporting our LGBTQ, and specifically, our transgender service members in the best possible way. By virtue of my duty position, I was in a unique nexus of opportunity to both overcome some minor barriers and also to have access to key resources to overcome more significant ones. Since there’s no better way to improve a process than to go through it one’s self so I had THAT talk with my first line supervisor.
Revealing that one is transgender is absolutely terrifying. We expect abandonment, hostility, rejection, and even physical violence. There are those who believe that transgender people are perverted, dangerous, or damaging to readiness. Seeing and hearing others talk about a group of people they don’t personally know, and then realizing they’re talking about You... That takes a very real emotional toll. Transgender people are up to 40 percent more likely to have considered suicide. Not because we are “confused” or “hate” ourselves, but because it can feel like the world hates us. But when I openly started sharing my story, I found out immediately I had seriously underestimated the professionalism and character of our service members. Despite my expectations, every single member of this organization who I’ve interacted with has been an absolute professional and upheld the highest traditions of the service. I found that I have advocates in people I had expected rejection from, and supporters in people I didn’t even know. I found Battle Buddies and Wingmen who stood beside me; who stepped up to care for me and lend me their strength. Truly, our greatness lies in our commitment to each other.
Being a Battle Buddy; being a Wingman, is perhaps the most sacred honor-bound duty of any service member. To never let your fellow fall; to never leave a fallen comrade behind. That is the essence of our service. That is the essence of being a Battle Buddy or a Wingman. So what does it take to be a Battle Buddy or Wingman to a transgender person? Here’s a few tips:
Process your feelings. When your person tells you they’re transgender, don’t underestimate the impact this has on your life. But, here’s the thing: process your feelings on your own time. Your person came to you looking for that same kind of help; don’t expect them to help you too. Their hands and hearts are quite full processing their own issues.
Get smart. All LGBTQ issues are complicated, transgender issues can be even more so. Learn about the physical and mental health issues; learn about the legal issues; learn about societal issues. Learn on your own time so you can have conversations with your person as an informed participant.
Show up. Don’t make them face this alone. Ask them what you can do. Offer to go with them to their doctor appointments. Offer to go shopping with them. Offer to get them out of the house if that’s their thing. Be there. Don’t wait to be asked.
Mistakes are OK. After years of knowing someone, it takes time to change the very nature of how you think of them. That’s OK! So long as you honestly are trying to get it right. When you goof, and you will, just acknowledge it and say “I’m sorry” and truly commit to not making that mistake again.
Advocate. Get smart on the issues and then go out and do something. Not knowing leads to fear. Fear leads to violence, discrimination and barriers to opportunities. Fight the absence of information, fight misinformation and fight disinformation wherever you encounter it. Vote, speak, and act to help make the world a better and safer place for your person.
Transgender people, LGBTQ people, members of every other under-represented population who serve in our organization don’t want and aren’t asking for special treatment. We do not want and aren’t asking for special recognition. We are just Soldiers and Airmen trying to do our best to do our duty to our nation. But we do need a Battle Buddy. We do need a Wingman.
MAJ. Reese is the director of the Office of Performance Excellence for the Ohio Army National Guard.
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Note: The opinions in this article are those of the author and not necessarily that of Lehigh Valley Renaissance or the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center.