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Embracing Pride

  • Published
  • By 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
  • 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

“I’m terrified all the time … of everything!”

My throat clenched up tightly as I failed to hide the worst of my pained expression with my hands. The words hung heavily in the ensuing silence, punctuated only by stifled sobs as my commander patiently listened to me. I had just told this stranger with significant power over me that I was a transgender Airman. My cheeks ran hot and my body vibrated from the feeling of being forced to divulge that intensely personal fact to anyone ...

For this month, I want to talk about this shame, the opposite of Pride.

Shame is a self-critical emotion, in which individuals adopt a negative view of themselves, typically perceiving themselves as flawed or wrong in some way, such as thinking themselves ugly, incompetent, or stupid.

Conversely, pride is an act of feeling proud and unashamed of our thoughts, behaviors, or actions, and is often considered a mindful act of self-love, in moderation. Pride is reinforced by positive social feedback when we do something good or impressive in the same way that shame is reinforced when we are humiliated.

We blame ourselves for feeling shame–that we’re wrong and we “should” feel bad for not conforming to “normal” thoughts, behaviors, or actions. In other words, the moment we feel ashamed, we perceive ourselves as hopelessly and distinctly different from the ideal image of ourselves that we–or our social structures–have imposed as the way we must be.

I struggled with feeling pride after figuring out that I was transgender. I felt as though I didn’t look or sound right, and my thoughts were minefields of shame from a very conservative upbringing. Anxiety loomed at every turn, from blocked attempts to get any kind of gender-affirming care, to a media environment saturated with anti-trans violence and hate speech, to even overhearing the casual mocking of transgender people from my own brothers and sisters in arms.

I felt so isolated and carried an intense fear of being discovered, I couldn’t trust anybody at that point. That stress ate at my very being, every day, for years.

Pride and shame are positive and negative influences that shape everybody’s views of what is acceptable in a society and what isn’t from a young age. Social shame excludes people by increasing insecurity, feelings of guilt, and rejection­­­–especially for those who endure a life where their very existence is met with open disgust. Living without sufficient social acceptance can often lead to anger, loneliness, depression, and suicide attempts.

I came out to my primary care physician when I couldn’t endure hiding it anymore, and I left feeling hopeful… until my first gender-affirming medical care appointment.

They read an extensive list of requirements for me to even be allowed to transition per military guidelines, which brought me to the conclusion that the military was very eager to know if I desired gender affirming surgery (GAS), as the military only recognizes male or female gender designations. Then came the part of the regulations that required me to ‘out’ myself to my work center and receive consent from my commander to proceed. I needed to officially disclose my medical status because to the military medical system gender dysphoria is a diagnosis or ailment that requires treatment.

“It's required for a status of deployable forces assessment, so you need to get them to sign your medical treatment plan,” a Transgender Health Medical Evaluation Unit (THEMU) case manager informed me in a bored monotone. “No sign, no treatment plan.”

My ears were hot with anger at those requirements. I felt shamed by the indignity of extorting necessary care by forcing me to come out to strangers; requiring permission to be myself felt like a trap. I made an appointment to get the forms signed anyway, I felt like I had little choice.

I beat myself up for days, waffling from anger to despair and back again. The fewer people that knew, the safer I assumed I was. The shame I felt when thinking about how everyone might judge me was palpable–and I felt zero pride.

The day finally arrived, and I was wound tight with stress and shame. Nonetheless, I showed up, forms crinkling in my nervous hands.

I walked in, sat down, and proceeded to declare how I disliked how the doctors talked about being transgender. That I didn’t have a sickness to be cured or a delusion to be counseled … that I just needed to finally be recognized for who I truly was, to find help in adjusting to it. I also confessed that I was intensely anxious of what those changes might bring.

The commander pondered quietly, knitting his brow in thought for a long moment.

“I feel that ... that there’s nothing braver than standing before authority and declaring who you are,” he said finally. “I accept you as you are, and I’m proud to serve alongside you, as should anyone wearing the uniform. I want you to serve as your true self with pride.”

I didn’t expect laughter to escape my lungs. I was covered with tears yet filled with relief. I laughed loudly enough for the secretary to check on us. He handed me the signed treatment plan with a smile and a firm handshake, “I look forward to meeting you again, as the fine soldier I know you’ll be once more,” and I walked away, form in hand, and standing tall.

Within the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Defense, there is nothing more potent than acceptance of our fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Seamen, Marines, Guardians, and teammates for who they are, standing in solidarity as a united force.

When leaders across all branches talk of recognizing our service members as the Armed Forces’ strongest asset, capable of deterring aggression and protecting peace and stability, they mean every member. We must embrace our differences as each of us is a crucial part of a greater whole.

This month, let’s dispense with shame and serve with Pride.