Lifestyle & Belief

This transgender officer's soldiers still have to call her 'sir'

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Capt. Jennifer Peace realized she was transgender while serving in Afghanistan.

Credit:

Drew Perine/The News Tribune

Capt. Jennifer Peace is a tall, thin woman in a crisp uniform, with minimal makeup and shiny brown hair. But when soldiers call her ma’am, she has orders to correct them.

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They must call her sir.

Capt. Peace, an intelligence officer stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, is transgender. And although it’s been more than four years since the ban on openly gay servicemen and women was lifted, being transgender is still an issue in the US military.

That’s about to change soon. But until the Defense Department crafts formal policies, transgender service members are in a complicated, sometimes frustrating position, when it comes to handling bathrooms, bunking, pronouns — and haircuts.

Peace’s hair falls just below her ears. That’s a problem, because according to the US Army, Jennifer Peace is a man. And her hair is too long to conform to the standards set for men in the military. She’s been ordered to get it cut.

Peace deployed to Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2012 as a man. And though her evaluations were good, she says she struggled with the way her body looked and with depression. She says while she was in Afghanistan she tried lifting weights but the more she bulked up the less she liked what she saw. 

"I tried gaining weight, I tried losing weight, but I was just getting more and more miserable," she says.

Peace searched for answers online and then something finally clicked; she began to realize she was transgender.

So about two years ago, with her wife’s support, Peace started medically transitioning from male to female. She’s one of an estimated 15,000 transgender troops serving in the armed forces and reserves, according UCLA’s Williams Institute, which conducts research on sexual orientation and gender policy.

Capt. Jennifer Peace (center) at home with her wife Debbie and their children.

Capt. Jennifer Peace (center) at home with her wife Debbie and their children. 

Credit:

Drew Perine/The News Tribune

Peace’s decision to transition had potentially devastating consequences for her career and for her family — she and her wife, Debbie, have been married for 11 years. They live in Spanaway, Wash., with their three children, and Peace says they’ve racked up $55,000 in debt for her surgeries.

“I was scared the entire time,” Peace says. “We had so many conversations about what are we to do if I get kicked out? I've got three kids and a mortgage like everyone else. The Army is what I knew. What would I do if was gone tomorrow?"

That didn’t happen. Under an order from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a senior Pentagon official must review involuntary discharges for transgender service members.

Carter made it clear in a speech at the Pentagon last summer that diversity in the military is critical to the mission.

“Because we need to be a meritocracy,” Carter said. “We have to focus relentlessly on our mission, which means the thing that matters most about a person is what they can contribute to national defense.”

But first there are the haircuts and the pronouns.

Even though Peace has legally changed her name, her soldiers are under orders to address her as “sir.” When they didn’t do that at first, she says, she and her soldiers were reprimanded.

(Animation Credit: Richie Pope and Rauch Bros. Animation)

“My soldiers were called in and they said, ‘What are you calling Capt. Peace? What were you told to call Capt. Peace?’" she says. “I was called in and my direct supervisor said "Hey, Capt. Peace. I need you start correcting people's pronouns.’”

An Army spokesman said current policy is to treat soldiers by the gender they held when they entered the service.

Those kinds of issues will likely be addressed by a working group formed by Carter — as will more complex problems, such as whether transgender troops will be excluded from any military jobs.

“There's a widespread recognition that current policies don't work,” says Sue Fulton, a former Army captain who is president of SPARTA, a non-profit that supports LGBT military veterans and their families. There’s also “a strong intent to set the right policies. To make sure they're doing the right thing is going to take time.”

Fulton, who was part of the first class of women to graduate from West Point, counsels patience: “Being first is hard.”

While Peace admits she’s impatient, she’s also hopeful that soon the focus will be on her job performance, not her gender.

“I think by this time next year, we’ll be talking about how well the implementation has gone,” she says.

This story was produced as part of the American Homefront Project, a collaboration of KUOW Seattle, WUNC, and Southern California Public Radio.