Constable: Patriotic service in blood of transgender veterans
Serving in a combat zone can be difficult for even the most patriotic Americans. In addition to the fear of dying and the disturbing images that linger forever, Vietnam War veteran Renee James of Wheeling also dealt with the stress of knowing she was a woman in a man's body, who was keeping that secret from fellow troops, friends and even loved ones.
"I thought it was just a neurotic thing that came up once in a while," says James, 74, who didn't fully embrace a feminine identity until more than three decades after coming home from that war. "It's been a long time coming. When the internet came along, I was able to do searches. The big breakthrough was when I came out to my wife."
She is still at James' side after working through a difficult transition. "She's really supportive," says James, who has been in that marriage for more than 30 years. Some friends and even loved ones still know James only as a man, but James dresses as a woman when she meets with other transgender veterans. During one of their lunch outings at a restaurant in Arlington Heights, a man at another table gave James a nasty look. The still-fit James chuckles as she imagines how that guy would feel "getting beat up by a transgender woman."
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the United States has at least 15,000 transgender people serving in the military today and another 134,000 transgender veterans. Transgender people are more than twice as likely to be veterans than the rest of the population, according to a 2015 survey by the organization.
"Service to others is a calling for transgender people," suggests James, a member of the Chicago Gender Society, which was founded 34 years ago to provide education and support to transgender people. "It was remarkable how many veterans, how many cops, some firefighters, are members."
On the day when Americans celebrate our independence, the transgender community can revel in some positive news. The Supreme Court this week let stand a lower-court ruling that transgender students could use the bathroom of their choice. Miss Nevada, Kataluna Enriquez, became the first transgender contestant in the Miss USA pageant. Elk Grove Village got rid of a 60-year-old law making it a crime to wear "opposite sex" clothing. And the Department of Veterans Affairs says benefits now include surgeries for transgender veterans seeking to alter their appearance.
But there is nothing new about transgender veterans.
"Trans people have been in the U.S. military since 1776," says retired Army Lt. Col. Ann Murdoch, who grew up in the suburbs and still has family in Glenview and Des Plaines. A highly decorated male officer leading troops in Afghanistan, Murdoch now is a transgender woman serving as president of the Transgender American Veterans Association. She points to a 2019 Smithsonian Channel documentary, "The General Was Female?," showing how DNA, pelvic bone structure and other details suggest Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski might have had an "intersex" anatomy that didn't fit the typical definitions of male or female.
Murdoch, who retired from the Army in 2014 after 24 years and made the transition to female two years later, tells how the struggle of being a woman fighting as a man made her consider suicide in a speech she calls "A Night in Afghanistan."
James remembers growing up with "a happy early childhood" as a boy in a rural town before moving to Northbrook and playing pickup basketball and a little football in high school. James competed as a male gymnast on the still rings and horizontal bar and dated girls.
"It hit me between the eyes when I was a sophomore in college," remembers James, who attended a small, liberal arts school in Iowa. "I started dating this really beautiful woman. I was completely infatuated."
Instead of enjoying being with that woman, James imagined being that woman. After graduating with a degree in English, James lost the student deferment from the military draft.
"I didn't have enough money to go to grad school," remembers James, who enlisted as a clerk in the Army. During basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks, James remembers marching eight miles each way to the rifle range. "It snowed and sleeted and rained, and then the sun was hot, all in the same day," she says.
Poor eyesight kept James from being an expert marksman, but the climbing walls, obstacle courses and other physical challenges were no problem. "I was dangerously competent physically," James quips.
Given the choice of spending the winter in Germany before going to Vietnam, James opted to leave in spring 1969 for Vietnam. Assigned to an aviation unit, James was stationed near the Army's massive command headquarters in Long Binh, working as a public information specialist writing stories about awards and decorations. James remembers being one of many college graduates in a diverse group.
"There wasn't any tension between white and Black troops," says James, who never shared his internal struggle.
James eventually was recruited for a job running some departments in the Post Exchange, which was the all-purpose store on base. Going to Saigon some weekends for rest and relaxation, James had a Vietnamese girlfriend and spent some memorable times in Bangkok, Thailand.
But James also handled casualty reports and is still haunted by the image of a dead soldier whose bloated body wasn't pulled from a river for days. When James came home, work was hard to find.
"Being a Vietnam veteran was a reason not to hire you in those days," James says, noting that prospective employers assumed you were damaged by the war, drugs or alcohol. "It was a strike against you."
Living with a bunch of guys in a townhouse between O'Hare Airport and Des Plaines, James worked for an advertising supplement in Palatine before beginning a career as a magazine writer and editor. James worked in New York City with Time Life Books, but found a calling back in the Chicago area as an editor for trade magazines.
When James' first marriage to a woman ended in divorce, there were questions.
"I went to a gay bar with the intent of finding out about this thing I have. Am I gay?" James remembers thinking. "In the privacy of my own apartment, I would dress in women's clothes."
A heart condition prevents James from taking female hormones, and she never opted for surgery.
"I'm misgendered 95% of the time," says James, who adds that she often finds it easier to present as a man. "If someone calls me female, they should get a gold star."
An acclaimed author, James has a series of books built around Bobbi Logan, a transgender woman who deals with crimes. James' first novel was titled, "Coming Out Can Be Murder." All of James' books are available at reneejames-author.com.
Serving in Vietnam as a transgender person is no different from fighting a war as a man or a woman, James says. Murdoch, who says she has the support of her longtime wife, her 89-year-old dad in Glenview and other relatives, says the patriotism Americans feel for people who serve this country should include transgender veterans.
"It doesn't matter what gender you are," Murdoch says, noting she was glad to see President Joe Biden rescind Donald Trump's ban against transgender people serving in the military. "Can you do the job? That's all that matters. Our service will make our case."