Friday, 7 July 2017

Interview with Sheri Swokowski

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Sheri Swokowski, an American advocate for transgender rights and former U.S. Army colonel. She is the highest-ranking, out, transgender US Army veteran in the United States. Hello Sheri!
Sheri: Hello Monika!
Monika: I am so happy to have you here! Let me start with a question about your professional life. You can boast a fantastic military career …
Sheri: I enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard after high school and shortly thereafter started working full time as a federal employee. A dozen years later, I had the best of both worlds, as I was offered an opportunity to go on active duty in support of the WI National Guard.
I was a career infantry soldier who spent almost 35 years in uniform. I advanced through the enlisted ranks, attended the WI Military Academy, and earned a commission as a Second Lieutenant. I made the most of many opportunities and served as a Company Commander with two deployments, although in my day they were to Europe. I served on a two-star staff and was the Force Integrator, Strategic Planner, and finally the J1, Director of Manpower and Personnel.
I retired for a short period and then went back to work in the Washington DC area as a lead course instructor at the US Army Force Management School, Ft Belvoir, VA. I then served 2.5 years as a senior analyst at the Pentagon in Wash DC, followed by three years as Dir of Human Resources for the Rocky Mountain Region of the US Forest Service, in Denver, CO. I returned to WI in 2013 to spend time with my children and grandchildren.

Monika: I came across your short story in The New York Times series titled “Transgender Today.” You did not try to hide your bitterness about how you were treated by the army when you announced your transition.
Sheri: I was a government contractor in 2007 when I decided I needed to live authentically. I advised the HR Dir that I was taking a six-week leave of absence and would return as Sheri. They had no experience with Transgender employees, and it showed. When I returned I was greeted by the Director, a former three-star general, who thanked me for returning and then announced they had already hired my replacement. While they had hired an instructor, my replacement was not hired for six months after I returned.
Monika: As a result, you became an advocate for transgender rights in the military and LGBT employment non-discrimination laws. You worked with U.S. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin to promote the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and your story was shared during a Senate committee hearing on the act…
Sheri: Being from WI, I was proud Representative Baldwin was the first openly gay individual elected to Congress. She was from my home district in Madison and was sympathetic to the transgender rights movement. She shared my story with the House of Representatives in 2008-9.
Several years later she shared with me that in 2008 only a handful of 435 Representatives in Congress had been visited by a Transgender constituent. By 2011, all members of the House of Representatives had been visited by a Transgender individual.

At home in Windsor, WI. From "Our Lives -
Madison" Magazine. Mar/Apr, 2015.

Monika: You represent all the soldiers that came out transgender but also the estimated 15,500 closeted trans militaries. What are the biggest challenges for the promotion of their rights?
Sheri: After a coordinated effort started in 2013 by Servicemembers, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPARTA), the Dept of Defense announced on June 30, 2016, that Transgender service members would be able to serve openly, effective immediately. The US, finally, joined 18 of our allies who already permitted Trans service members to serve openly.
Although this was a collaborative effort between the Dept of Defense, medical experts, and advocacy groups like SPARTA and The Palm Center, our success was largely due to the dozens of transgender US Service Members who came out to their commands prior to the ban being lifted. They are the real heroes of the issue. I am happy to have played a small part in lifting the ban.
In April 2015 I successfully had the Army Board for Correction of Military Records update my Record of Military Service and provide me a DD 214 that reads: Sheri A Swokowski, COL, Army, Infantry. As a result, I was the first female infantry officer recognized by the Dept of Defense. I used the opportunity to wear a female infantry officer uniform to Pentagon Pride and the White House Pride Month Reception in June 2015.
Monika: You transitioned into a woman in your 50s? Have you ever regretted doing this so late in your life?
Sheri: I have often thought about this. Although I hid my identity for five decades out of love and respect for my family and the job that I loved, I don’t believe I would have done anything differently. My experiences, while impersonating a male for 50+ years, provided me many opportunities to acquire skills that would serve me well during my transition and later in life.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Sheri: In Washington, DC I was fortunate to find a support group of a dozen or so individuals; we were all transitioning at the same time. I gained a lot of strength and insight from sharing experiences with those individuals. I am still in touch with many of them today. 
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Sheri: I admire, and count as my friends several individuals around the country. I admire Dr. Becky Allison, an MD from Phoenix who transitioned a decade before I did.
I also admire Amanda Simpson who most recently served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy. She was the highest-ranking transgender Presidential appointee serving in the Obama administration.
Another individual I admire is an anonymous Justice Department official that has played a role in my life and the lives of Transgender Americans by advancing Transgender rights at a national level.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, many trans women lose their families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Sheri: The most difficult thing for me was causing pain to those I loved, particularly my spouse. As a result of transitioning, I have lost contact with siblings, ex-spouse, some friends, and co-workers. I have found losing friends and colleagues has been mainly generational. It appears older individuals find it more difficult to accept advances in the medical arena.
As a result, they find it harder to get past their biases. Younger individuals have been exposed to diversity from an earlier age and have few issues with transgender individuals. I am very grateful my two children are fully supportive and love me for whom I am; my three grandchildren are the same. While all losses have been difficult, the last dozen years of my life, since transitioning, have been the happiest, by far.
Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. As Laverne Cox announced, “Trans is beautiful.” Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with an interest in politics, science, and business become successful politicians, academics, and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in contemporary society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Sheri: Change is happening; more so at some locations than others. This is due to transgender individuals being more willing to be visible and tell their stories. Face-to-face communication is critical; you cannot hate someone whose story you know.

CNN Studio, Washington, DC. 8 Jun 2015. One day
prior to Pentagon Pride where she would be first
female Soldier to wear an Infantry uniform.

Monika: On the other hand, the restroom war is raging on and transgender women are killed on the streets…
Sheri: Here in the US we just experienced the 13th murder of a Transgender individual this year, almost all Women of Color. Society’s refusal to accept the evidence that being Transgender is a medical condition hampers our efforts. Cultural acceptance always lags formal recognition, and the transgender issue is no different.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the penultimate letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Sheri: There is much more cooperation in the US between national groups and the Trans community. As an example, the Human Rights Campaign has now taken up the cause of Transgender rights. Their National Press Secretary is a young trans woman, Sarah McBride.
Monika: What do you think in general about transgender news or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far?
Sheri: While I am grateful for the many film portrayals of Transgender individuals because they help us get the public’s eye, I am more grateful for authentic individuals who have the fortitude to tell their stories on smaller stages. I also appreciate talented writers like Jennifer Boylan, who tell their stories via print media, and researchers like Brynn Tannehill who publish some fantastic, realistic data to support Transgender individuals.
Monika: Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics? For example, could we live to see the day when a transgender lady could become the President of the USA? Or the First Lady at least? :)
Sheri: Yes, certainly. Our gender is not an inhibiting factor, but a force multiplier. The aforementioned Sarah McBride will be an elected official at the national level, before long. She is 26 and was the first Trans individual to speak at a national party convention in Aug 2016. A transgender candidate for Virginia representative just won her primary by an overwhelming margin and now faces a Republican incumbent this fall.
Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pills whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome …
Sheri: Most people in the US remain prisoners of passing because cosmetic surgery is not covered by insurance. Although reassignment surgeries are covered by most of the Fortune 500 companies, few states mandate gender-related health coverage. I was fortunate to be able to afford all surgeries as out-of-pocket expenses; I am one of the privileged. Most are not.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Sheri: I have been asked many times but there are books already out there. Don’t know what I need to add to existing references. We’ll see.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Sheri: I was married multiple times, but my marriages were doomed from the start. It is extremely difficult to be in a relationship when you are not authentic. Now that I am authentic, I find very limited opportunities. I am lesbian and the two dating conversations I’ve had in the past four years have both ended when I inform the interested party of my past. I believe it’s important, to be honest from the start.

Keynote speaker at Fair Wisconsin's inaugural
Veteran's Day Luncheon. Madison, WI; 10 Nov 2016.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Sheri: I spend most of my time volunteering for non-profits. I am the Vice-Chair, Fair WI Education Fund and am on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union-Wisconsin. I have spoken coast to coast and will continue to help inform others. Fun activities include biking and golfing (5 handicaps).
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Sheri: Transitioning is the most difficult thing I did in my life. It is very complex; I had to weigh benefits against consequences and choose the most appropriate time to be authentic. I know once I got started, I wanted to be at the endpoint the day after I started. That’s not realistic. Have a strategic plan that addresses short, medium, and long-term objectives. You must be willing to lose everything you have and be strong enough to survive.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Sheri: Surgery is not necessary to be authentic. I know many individuals who have been unable to physically transition and do so only socially. Our dreams begin when we start living authentically.
Monika: Sheri, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Sheri Swokowski.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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