With Honor and Integrity
Heartfelt Stories from Transgender Troops Striving to Serve as Their Authentic Selves
Editor’s Note: The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present this exclusive excerpt from the new book With Honor and Integrity: Transgender Troops in Their Own Words by Máel Embser-Herbert and Bree Fram. But first, Embser-Herbert, a Professor of Social Justice and Social Change at Hamline University (in St. Paul, Minnesota) and a veteran of the U.S. Army, explains how the book came to be.
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In October 2017, I had the good fortune of attending a Minnesota-based film festival, Gender Reel. On the program were several short films about transgender military service, as well as remarks by Tarrence Robertson-Bayless, then serving as an openly transgender member of the Minnesota National Guard.
The Obama Administration had, in June 2016, announced a policy that would permit trans people to serve openly in the U.S. military. Then, in July 2017, President Trump announced his intent to reverse that policy, via Twitter. Chaos ensued with service members not knowing if a presidential tweet was policy, if they still had their jobs, and so on.
During the 13 months between the inclusive service announcement and Trump’s tweet, service members had started to come out as transgender, with many beginning social, legal, and/or medical transitions.
As I watched the films and listened to Robertson-Bayless at Gender Reel, I found myself wondering how trans service members were navigating this shifting, and potentially hostile, terrain. With an eye to answering this question, at least in part, I decided to see if there were trans service members who might be willing to talk with me.
Ultimately, I conducted in-depth interviews with 10 such individuals, publishing the results in an academic journal. I wanted to do more, but I didn’t really want to approach this subject within the parameters of social scientific research. Ultimately I wondered, “Would trans service members consider crafting essays about their own experiences?”
In December 2018, I reached out to Bree Fram (a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Space Force and the president of SPARTA, a transgender military advocacy organization), one of the people I had interviewed, asking if she might be interested in putting together such a book. Together we embarked on an almost-three year journey that resulted in With Honor and Integrity: Transgender Troops in Their Own Words.
The authors of With Honor and Integrity: Transgender Troops in Their Own Words, (above) Professor Máel Embser-Herbert and (below) Lt. Colonel Bree Fram.
Reaching out via personal and organizational networks, we ended up with 25 contributions, as well as Bree’s own story. The book opens with an introduction offering a brief history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender military service. The first chapter turns to recent advocacy efforts with regard to transgender military service in particular.
Thereafter, and the very heart and soul of the book, are four chapters containing essays by enlisted personnel and officers representing all branches of service. The first six essays are by veterans who served during a period where being one’s authentic self was simply not possible. The others all served at some point since 2016. The concluding chapter, written after President Biden announced that trans service members were again welcome to serve openly, considers what the future might hold. We ask the question: “Will the administration that follows Biden again attempt to turn back the clock?”
While we can’t answer that question, we’re hopeful—despite continued assaults on the trans community—that stories such as that shared by Navy Lieutenant Kris Moore (in the excerpt below) will contribute to a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the myriad transgender individuals who serve, or seek to serve, their country.
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U.S. Navy Lt. Kris Moore
From: Kris Moore, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, 2005–present
Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, I often felt out of place, a little weird, and misunderstood. I didn’t fit societal norms of what a little girl should act like and I felt like everyone had to let me know. “Ladies don’t allow dirt under their fingernails.” “Ladies don’t wear baseball caps.” “Ladies don’t ride around on skateboards.” The criticism, which felt more like taunting, would continue into my late teens and early twenties. I wore dirty blue jeans, climbed trees, played football, liked to wrestle in the front yards of friends’ houses on hot summer days, those things that “ladies” didn’t do in the early nineties, or so they say. I’ve never been a fan of gendering actions, maybe because I was always judged by those standards and felt constricted by them or, more likely, I learned at a young age those “standards” were inaccurate and toxic.
Believe it or not, I was a starting offensive tackle on my freshman football team, the “boys” team. One night, after winning a game, my mom and I went to dinner. On the way there, mom began crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she tried to put me off but I knew she wasn’t the emotional type, so I persisted. “One of the moms behind me said that you and Trey swapped genders . . . .” Trey is my older brother and was never an athlete, so in the eyes of Southerners he was less than a man. I can’t remember the exact conversation because I was, admittedly, enraged. This woman and her husband had appeared to be very supportive of me, but they broke my mom’s heart. I could never forgive that woman for hurting my mom. I could deal with the bullying at school. I could handle being told I was “weird” for doing “manly” things. But what I couldn’t handle is seeing my mom in pain because she was second-guessing her actions as a mother.
I’ve spent the last few years reflecting on what kept me in the closet for so long and every time I come back to that night, a defining event from when I was thirteen. I don’t think it’s quite that simple, but I do recognize that dramatic events, especially at a young age, can have lifelong impacts. I struggled for years to come to terms with my sexuality and gender identity; I’m thirty-one years old and finally feel comfortable in my own skin.
I witnessed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a midshipman, after having served in the closet for just over five years. It was such an elating feeling to be allowed to step out and embrace who I was. A group of my friends and classmates came together to create the first LGBT-ally group at the Naval Academy—Navy Spectrum—in order to have a safe place for LGBT midshipmen and their allies to talk about matters that related to our community. But, in order to be sanctioned by the Naval Academy, we had to take the “T” out of our description and mission statement. At the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal; we were still allowed to talk about it and educate people on trans-related matters – who cares if it can’t be a part of the name or mission? Years later, I realize how wrong that train of thought was. We pushed on, we invited transgender alumni to come speak to us about their experiences at the Naval Academy, in the fleet, and in the civilian sector. We talked about what it meant to be trans and how there was no single path to transitioning. I began to relate with our speakers and the alumni I would use as mentors more and more. The thought began to creep in the back of my mind “Is this more than empathy? Could I possibly be transgender? Does this explain my childhood? Oh shit.”
I was sitting at a bar with my then fiancé in New York City in February 2013, slowly sipping on a beer and clearly lost in thought. We were in NYC to speak to other military academy LGB(T) club leadership to discuss a possible leadership symposium. I had brought up the need to incorporate transgender education into the symposium and in our routine club meetings, but each time I mentioned it I received heavy pushback from two individuals. I was getting annoyed at these meetings, so when we all departed to take a tour of the city my fiancé and I broke off to go grab a drink alone. She asked me if I was okay, asked me what I was thinking about, and then asked me why I was so adamant about pushing for transgender education. I told her it was the right thing to do and we, as a society, will never be okay with something we don’t understand, so why not try and understand? She then asked when I was going to come out as transgender. I froze. I hadn’t told anyone how I felt, but somehow she knew. I asked her what made her ask such a question. She said that from the look in my eyes and my behavior she could just tell. She told me to embrace who I was and to come out when I was ready, and that she would support whatever decision I made. That was music to my ears. I felt a bit of relief and then a wave of pressure. I felt like it was time and necessary for me to come out, but I had no idea how.
I came out to my parents shortly thereafter and was again met with love and support. They said they would support whatever decision I made and that they just wanted me to be happy but were also concerned for my safety and future in the military. They said, “Just be smart about it, okay?” I knew what they meant was that I had to test the waters before diving into an unknown lake off an unfamiliar dock. Over the next two years I slowly came out to friends, roommates, instructors, mentors, and counselors. I didn’t come across a single person who didn’t support me for being me. Some didn’t quite understand, some may not have believed it was right, but all continued to love and support me.
In May 2014, shortly after graduation, I got married and, despite the ban on transgender service, my wife and I began to talk very seriously about my starting a medical transition. I began by going to a civilian counselor at a nearby LGBT center and, after several months of sessions, she diagnosed me with gender dysphoria. My wife and I agreed that I should start hormone treatments. She even accompanied me to my first appointment with the endocrinologist and gave me my first shot of testosterone. She’s not a fan of needles nor hurting people, so I was pleasantly surprised when she had no issues giving me that first injection.
Although I initially thought about waiting to tell my chain of command, I decided to go ahead with it even though I had no idea how the captain would react. Would she be a strict rule-follower and have me processed for discharge? I was incredibly nervous, but I couldn’t just give up. I had to trust that she had my back and would at least keep me afloat, if not lead me through the storm, and she did. She had she already had an idea that I was transgender, appreciated me trusting her with this information, and supported whatever decision I made. We agreed that I should come out to the wardroom (officers on the ship) and the Chief’s Mess (group of chiefs on the ship) prior to deployment so as to discourage rumors and maintain trust and unity amongst leadership.
The captain called all officers to the wardroom one day for training, as was part of our routine, and gave some updates on things going on around the ship. After she was done with her part, she said, “Ensign Moore has something he wants to say.” I don’t know what I was expecting her to say but a wave of anxiety hit me like a ton of bricks. My heart was racing, I was visibly sweating, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to speak. I stood up and started off with, “Thank you ma’am. Does everyone know what transgender means?” The captain broke in, “KMoore”—my nickname—“they don’t live under a rock, get on with it!” I must admit, this didn’t help the nerves a bit, but I did as I was told. “Well, I’m transgender. I was born in a female body, was raised as a girl, but have never felt right about it. I’ve recently began taking hormones to transition to living as a man. I just wanted to let all of you know because you will be seeing and hearing changes soon and I don’t want there to be a bunch of rumors floating around. If you’d like to tell your divisions, or have me tell your divisions, I’m good with that. But I just don’t want rumors getting in the way of our jobs.” I stopped speaking, pretty abruptly, so there was a look of waiting on everyone’s faces. “Does anyone have any questions for me?” “Are you happy!?” I heard my chief engineer speak up, her voice was loud and caught me off guard. I couldn’t tell if she was asking me a legitimate question or if it was meant in a negative way, so I asked, “I’m sorry?” “Are you happy?” She said it more questioning and calm this time. “Is”- insert wife’s name here – “happy?” I told her, “Yes, I am and I believe she is as well.” “Then who gives a shit what anyone else thinks?” I wanted to cry. I wasn’t expecting to get my ass kicked, but I definitely wasn’t expecting such aggressive support either. A huge weight was lifted off my shoulders and I started to feel free, like I could really focus on my work now. As we were dismissed, every single person in that wardroom came up and either shook my hand, told me how proud they were of me, hugged me, or some combination of them all. I had to go to my room to gather myself. I wasn’t expecting to be so emotionally drained after that.
I continued hormone treatment through deployment, began to use men’s restrooms overseas (because I could no longer safely get away with using the women’s restrooms), and started living as a male. It was such an amazing feeling to experience this sort of liberty for the first time. When I was on my way home from deployment, I received word that the trans ban had been lifted. Once I had followed the required, but yet to be determined, process, I would be able to change my name and gender marker. Almost immediately, I began scheduling the necessary appointments. Most challenging of all was understanding the required protocol for getting it all done. I asked a lot of questions and tried to be nice to the people who helped me, so for the most part I had a pretty easy time with my paperwork and appointments.
One day in July 2017, having been out at sea for a brief period of time, my ship returned to port. I was sitting down in the wardroom, eating lunch, when I heard on the 1MC (general announcing system), “Lieutenant Junior Grade Moore, your presence is requested in the commanding officer’s cabin.” I’ll clue you in on a little secret: a junior officer being chimed to the captain’s cabin during lunch is never a good thing. Usually, our next ranking person (department head, a lieutenant) would be called first, not us. I thought maybe it was something about sea and anchor detail or some other bridge watch–related thing, but then I saw my command master chief (CMC) in there as well, and when she turned to look at me my world slowly turned dark. “Come on in, Kris, have a seat.” My tension grew because my commanding officer hardly ever talked to me so gently, and why was my CMC here anyway; who died? “Have you seen the news today?” “No, sir, I don’t typically watch the news on the ship. Is everything okay?” My mind immediately searched for clues— was there a mass shooting where my family lives, did something happen in Norfolk and my wife was involved? What the hell is going on!? My captain turned the volume up on his TV and I immediately saw the scroll with something along the lines of “Trump to ban transgender service members from serving in military.” I felt the blood drain from my face, my hands went numb, and I remember having trouble hearing anything other than the loud tone in my ear like an audiogram gone bad. I remember hearing my CMC ask me multiple times if I was okay, but I couldn’t answer. Not that I didn’t want to say something, I just couldn’t get words to come out. I was on this merry-go-round from hell and I couldn’t figure out how to get sound to come out of me. My captain looked me in the eyes and told me, “Nothing changes, tweets aren’t policy, and this won’t last. There’s no way this can be legal. We will continue to support you and you will continue to do your job.” I know those were exactly the words I wanted to hear, but I couldn’t process it quite yet. I could feel myself begin to cry, something I hadn’t done since starting testosterone almost two years prior, so I asked if I could be excused. “I want you to take the rest of the day off, Kris. Go home.” “Sir, I really don’t want to be alone right now.” He understood and told me I could work out of my stateroom for as long as I needed and to let him know if he could do anything for me. I went to my stateroom and immediately lost control of every emotion surging through my body. I ugly cried. My roommate walked in and I didn’t even try to hide it, not that it was even possible at this point. He grabbed my shoulders and asked what happened. I turned on the news and he just hugged me. He held me until I patted him on the back and said thank you. At this time, I was smoking, so I went outside to the smoke deck and quickly realized the entire ship had seen the news. I should have known; all the TVs are on during lunch and word gets around a ship faster than you’d imagine. The chiefs that were out there immediately noticed me and recognized my pain. They created a circle around me so the younger sailors couldn’t see me when I began to cry again and then someone asked me, “Sir, what does this mean for you?” I wanted to yell, “The fuck if I know!” But I just said, “Nothing. Tweets aren’t policy. Nothing changes.” Everyone out there knew I was full of shit, but what else was there to say?
I had a mastectomy consult the following Monday up in Bethesda, a five-hour drive from Norfolk. I had arranged to be relieved from duty a few hours early so I could make it up there in time for my appointment. When I finally got in to see the surgeon, I was told, “I just got back from leave and haven’t even read your file, have you started testosterone?” Given that I now had chest hair, a “five-o’clock shadow” from not having yet shaved that morning, and a deep voice, I was a little annoyed by his question but tried to remain calm. “Yes, I’ve been on testosterone for nearly two years, sir.” “Oh, okay, well given the recent policy change, I can’t see you for top surgery, but we can do imaging and other tests just in case this all blows over.” “Sir, no policy has been released, those were tweets.” “Yes, but I’ve been ordered not to continue gender-transition-related care until further notice.” At this point I was pissed off and hurt. When I reported back to my ship the next day, I immediately went to my doctor and captain about what I could do. As much as they disagreed with the surgeon, we agreed there wasn’t much anyone could do until some sort of clarifying orders came out. As of this writing, it’s now been almost two years and, after several more consults, I am still waiting for a surgery date.
There are people out there that will argue having transgender service members in our nation’s military only brings disorder and disrupts unit cohesion. I’ve been in the Navy for thirteen years now, four of which have been as a transgender officer. I come to work every day to do the job, to mentor midshipmen, to teach classes, and coach rugby players. I strive to be the best I can be, to help promote team unity, and accomplish our mission. I’m a sailor first. I just happen to be transgender.
With Honor and Integrity: Transgender Troops in Their Own Words is available from book sellers everywhere, as well as via the book’s publisher, New York University Press. Use the code TRANSTROOPS30 with NYU Press to receive a 30 percent discount.
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