Amid preparations to celebrate Pride next month, a transgender veteran plans to take the opportunity to make a subtle, but potentially powerful statement for the 15,500 troops in the U.S. military who are forced to hide their gender identity.
Sheri Swokowski, who served as an infantry soldier for nearly 34 years as she presented as male, plans to wear a female Army Service Uniform with an infantry gold-crossed rifle insignia at the upcoming annual Pride event at the Pentagon on June 9.
“I hope to be a visible voice for those 15,500 folks that are forced to serve in silence and sacrificing their own authenticity to do that,” Swokowski said in an interview with the Washington Blade. “So I will be in the audience and SECDEF is going to be the keynote speaker. I don’t know if he will notice, but I’m sure along with other people along the route, they will certainly witness something they haven’t seen before.”
Swokowski, who transitioned after she retired from service, said just last month the Defense Department issued her updated DD-214 discharge papers identifying with her current female name. She’s among numerous transgender veterans who received updated paperwork from the Pentagon that corresponds with their gender identity.
Despite a recent change in policy, the Army infantry doesn’t yet officially admit women. But because of her change in paperwork, Swokowski said the Army is admitting that women have served in the infantry all along. She said she’ll be the first infantry female to legitimately wear an Army service uniform in the halls of the Pentagon.
Swokowski said she plans intends to draw attention to the U.S. military’s continued policy of banning transgender people from serving openly in the armed forces.
“Those 15,500 folks that are currently serving deserve to be recognized, deserve to be allowed to be authentic and deserve medically necessary treatment that they require,” Swokowski said.
Due to a medical regulation set in place before 1980, transgender troops are prohibited from serving openly in the armed forces under DOD Instruction 6130.03, which calls for separation of service members who undergo gender reassignment or have “psychosexual conditions” that include transvestitism or transsexualism.
An estimated 15,500 transgender people are serving in silence in the military because of the policy barring them from being open about their gender identity, and another 134,000 veterans identify as transgender, according to a 2014 report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Swokowski, who’s 64 and now lives near Madison, Wis., said the continuation of the policy in the U.S. military is “distressing” and recalled her own difficulty keeping silent about her gender identity during her tenure in the armed forces.
“I did a few things correctly or well to make the best out of active duty, but I often wonder how much better a person and non-commissioned officer I would have been had I been allowed to transition while in service as part of the military instead of surpressing all of those feelings and not being authentic,” Swokowski said.
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Defense Department spokesperson, had no comment on Swokowski’s plan to draw attention to the military’s transgender ban during the Pentagon Pride event.
It won’t be the first time Swokowski has attended a Pride event at the Pentagon, which began in 2012, after the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Previously, Swokowski has attended wearing civilian garb.
After she retired as an Army infantry officer in 2004 and started to transition, Swokowski took a job in 2007 as a lead course instructor at U.S. Army Force Management School at Ft. Belvoir, Va. But, as previously reported, Swokowski was terminated from her position after she went public with her plans to transition.
In 2009, then-Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who before being elected U.S. senator represented Swokowksi as a U.S. House member, drew on her termination during a Senate committee hearing as a reason to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“To hear Sheri tell her story is heartbreaking,” Baldwin said at the time. “She knows she was qualified for the position, but she also recognizes that her former employer didn’t see her as Sheri – they only saw her gender identity. The sad reality is that Sheri’s life and her livelihood would be different today if ENDA were the law of the land.”
But Swokowski said her termination at Ft. Belvoir inspired her to undertake the role as an advocate and she visits Capitol Hill multiple times each year to promote transgender issues.
“Transgender people are different than the sex assigned at birth, but that doesn’t mean we are different when it comes to society,” Swokowski said. “We frankly mirror society. We’re doctors, lawyers, commercial airline pilots, athletes, engineers, high-ranking government officials in addition to soldiers, sailor and Marines.”
Following her termination at Ft. Belvoir, Swokowski said she obtained a new civilian position as a senior analyst for the assistant chief of staff for installation management, an experience she described as “entirely positive,” saying she was known for her skills and not her gender identity.
“If I can do that in the Pentagon as a civilian, we can sure as heck do that in the military as well,” Swokowski said.
Denny Meyer, a spokesperson for the Transgender American Veterans Association, said his organization “absolutely” supports Swokowski’s effort “100 percent.”
“She is fully qualified to do this,” Meyer said. “She served in the infantry. She’s a legitimate infantry retired officer. She earned every bit of it, including whatever medals she pins on to her uniform. And her DD-214 has her current, new name and so it’s entirely proper. And as a retired colonel, she has too much respect for the uniform to do anything improper. If there was any question about it, she wouldn’t do it.”
Meyer said most people probably won’t realize Swokowski is making a statement during the Pentagon Pride event because of the subtlety of her effort.
“The infantry symbol is almost an unnoticeable little thing of gold-crossed [rifles],” Meyer said. “It’s almost unnoticeable as far as the rest of the uniform goes in comparison to all the medals. Only someone who knows what it means would notice it and go, ‘Oh, infantry officer.'”
Both Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the White House have expressed an openness to the idea of openly transgender service in the U.S. military, but so far no direct steps have been taken to review the policy or to lift it. Instead, the Pentagon has stated it is conducting a routine, periodic full-range review of medical regulations. Although it isn’t specific to transgender service, it may encompass the military ban.
One exception to the inaction on the ban on transgender military service is a new Army policy raising the authority to discharge service members for being transgender to a senior civilian official, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. To date, none of the other services has announced they’re implementing a similar policy. Upon announcing the policy in March, the Army stated it would expire in 12 months.
Noting that the American Psychological Association didn’t remove gender identity disorder as a mental condition until 2012, Swokowski said she thinks the general ban remains in place for the U.S. military because “we’re still fighting the stigma about being transgender.”
“We need to change that way of thinking; we people to understand this is a medical condition deserving of treatment,” Swokowski said. “In reality, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association didn’t conclude that until 2011 being trans is a medical condition. It’s probably not unusual for society in general to be playing catch up for three, four, five years.”
Swokowski said she’s unsure whether the administration will lift the ban on transgender before the end of President Obama’s second term, but she remains hopeful.
“I certainly hope for the sake of those 15,500 transgender service members serving in the active and reserve component that this happens much quicker than later,” Swokowski said. “I recognize and applaud DOD for initiating the medical retention standards [review], but this really needs to be put on a fast track. Every day is important for those 15,000 service members who continue to serve in silence.”
In the meantime, Swokowski said she hopes her decision to stand out during the upcoming Pentagon Pride event will have some impact on moving things forward.
“If, at the end of the day, my experience can help just one person lead an authentic life, then I consider that a success,” she said.