If there’s anyone who knows what it’s like to be transgender and closeted in the U.S. military, it’s Air Force veteran Shannon Scott. For nearly 12 years, Shannon served her country, receiving numerous medals and honors for her dedication and effort.
Still, despite her accomplishments and the respect of her peers, after a decade of service, Shannon found herself facing a dishonorable discharge for one simple reason: her gender identity.
If Donald Trump’s attempt to ban transgender service members becomes a reality, Shannon’s story could become much more common. The Williams Institute estimates that there are approximately 15,500 transgender service members openly serving in the military today, making the U.S. armed forces the largest employer of transgender people on the planet.
Shannon’s story provides a chilling look at what it used to mean to serve in the armed forces while transgender – and the fate that could potentially await these thousands of service members if the ban moves forward.
From a Ranch in Montana to Service in Iraq
Growing up in a small town in Montana, Shannon says, she always knew there was something different about herself. Unfortunately, in Catholic family living on ranch, being anything other than hyper-masculine was unacceptable. At age 18, she says, “I decided to ‘toughen up’ by joining the United States military.”
For almost a decade, Shannon continued to struggle with her gender identity, seeing multiple conservative therapists in an attempt to “fix” herself. One after another, they told her they simply couldn’t help her – that being transgender was just who she was.
Shannon says two things happened to convince her that she should start living authentically, no matter what the repercussions might be. One was when, in a moment of depression, she put a gun to her own head. Instead of pulling the trigger, something inside of her told her there was still more she needed to do.
The other was when she found herself on a flight out of Iraq, in a plane packed with the human remains of her fellow service members. She recalls, “I sat down and stared at those that we lost, filling this plane from tip to tail. And it was at that moment that I asked myself, ‘Why am I alive? Why do I get to go home?’ And it was then and there I told myself that I wasn’t going to live my life in fear. I wasn’t going to take my life for granted anymore, and I was going to live authentically.”
After returning home to Montana, Shannon decided to try something new. She booked an appointment with a transgender therapist 186 miles away. Twice a month, she would travel nearly 400 miles round trip to talk about her gender identity in an affirming setting. It was the first time in her life she’d allowed herself to consider a different future.
After nine years of military service, Shannon finally started hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had already been repealed, but transgender service members still weren’t allowed to serve openly. Despite undergoing a transition in her everyday life, Shannon had to remain in the closet at work. Still, her colleagues noticed the change in her behavior, voice, and demeanor at work. “The further I progressed with my HRT, the better I felt and the more confident I felt.”
One weekend, someone she knew spotted her outside of work, presenting as Shannon. The repercussions were immediate: “When I came into work on Monday, I didn’t even sit down or take my hat off. My manager called me into his office. I knew what he wanted to talk about. When he called me in, I sat down and he had two pieces of paper in front of him. The first was the Air Force regulations that said you can’t be transgender. The second was my dishonorable discharge papers.”
She read the regulations, which described a transgender identity as grounds for a dishonorable discharge, in the same sentence as convicted pedophiles and child pornographers. Her manager told her that if she didn’t keep her transition quiet, she would be let go immediately. She agreed, and began to plan for the next phase of her life in a position that would allow her to live openly.
A few months later, she accepted a job with the Federal Aviation Administration and received an honorable discharge. Despite being staffed by veterans, her new workplace was incredibly supportive of her transition. Her new boss even brought in trainers to help her colleagues better understand transgender issues – the polar opposite of the Air Force’s response.
Now, Shannon is using her experience to help make the path ahead easier for other trans service members. During the Obama administration, she met with officials at the Pentagon, giving input on the new, transgender-affirming policies that were enacted during his term.
She also works as the founder of United Equality Consulting, an organization focused on helping companies support their transgender employees. By working with employers, she hopes to help others avoid the difficult bind she found herself in during her own transition.
A Transgender Veteran’s Response to Trump’s Military Service Ban
In the days since Trump’s tweets, Shannon has found herself facing countless TV crews and reporters, curious about her perspective and experiences. On its face, she says, the reasoning for Trump’s proposed new policy is ridiculous.
One of the major concerns cited by the President for his decision is the idea that transgender service members require “tremendous medical costs” and that the experience of transitioning would cause disruption within military units.
There are a variety of medical reasons service members may need to be temporarily put on bed rest or relieved of their duties, says Shannon. “It’s just like anything else. If you have a service member who has a hernia, or pregnancy, or cancer – all of these are things where they step out of their normal line of duty, go on to bed rest, or they take a minor role in duty. They’re still serving their country, and when they’re healed and they’re healthy and they’re whole, they go back to work. How is this any different? It’s not. Logistically speaking, this happens every day with hundreds of thousands of people in the military already.”
Another argument she rejects is the idea that transgender healthcare is prohibitively expensive. Prescriptions for hormones aren’t any more expensive than other common drugs, she says, and any surgical costs are comparable to many other routine procedures.
She also warns that pulling trans service members off duty could be disruptive to unit cohesion – ironically, the same issue Trump warns a trans military presence could cause. She compares the dire warnings about a transgender presence in the military to the reaction to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011.
During her time in the Air Force, Shannon recalls, “Were there issues of unit cohesion when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed? Sure. Nobody likes change, or having to learn or accept someone new. But they got through it. And I think it would have been the exact same with this.”
Ultimately, Shannon believes that removing the thousands of transgender service members on active duty would do more harm than good. “The argument is not there. It’s just what they’re using to justify this terrible discrimination. That’s all it is.”
How LGBTQ Americans and Allies can Resist Trump’s Transphobic Agenda
At the end of our conversation with Shannon, we asked if she had any final words she wanted to share with our supporters – and we found her answer inspiring. We hope you will too.
She told us, “I want to challenge everyone who is reading this. Talk is one thing, and communication is important. But action is how we get things to change. So I challenge each and every one of you to do something. Not just talk. Go out there and raise funds or volunteer. Because action is more powerful than words.”
At Basic Rights Oregon, we work hard to empower our supporters to take action and make concrete changes in the world around them. One step you can take today is to sign our petition demanding that Congress keep anti-transgender discrimination out of the military. Here’s the link to join us and have your voice heard.