Welcome to a new series of highlighted Stories of SPARTA. These interviews were conducted by Emma Smith (she/her), a licensed professional counselor and doctoral candidate who specializes in gender and identity. A long-time advocate of military families and LGBTQ+ rights, Emma asked to partner with SPARTA to fulfill the advocacy domain of her program by completing a series of interviews through the lens of a mental health professional, highlighting some of the challenges our transgender service members face, and their incredible resiliency. As such, these interviews have a different style and tone. We hope that these stories can be of use not only to other service members but also to service providers who need to better understand the lived experience of transgender service members.
This week's entry features Alice Magner.
Alice Star Vanessa Magner (she/her) is a medical laboratory technician in the United States Air Force. She is stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Last year, she was recognized for her dedication and excellence as Kirtland Teams Airman of the Quarter (July - September 2022). She was also awarded an Air and Space Achievement medal.
Military Service Questions
Question: How do you decide to join the Air Force?
I was going to be a Marine, but my father (prior Army) encouraged me to join the Air Force. I joined in 2013 and have been in for ten years.
Question: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?
“Keep pushing forward and bouncing back. Life is constantly changing and moving. Your situation [in the military] is never going to be the same for very long. And if you were to give up, you would miss on a lot of opportunities.” Alice quickly admitted that the military has not always been a positive experience for her. However, as she progressed in her career, she could look back with some additional perspective: “I realized that I picked up a lot of valuable tools to use in my life and grown as a person. And I can take these lessons moving forward. So if I had given up, I would never have gotten to where I am now.”
Question: In your opinion, what is the most important personality trait/strength someone would need to work in your industry/be successful in your job?
“Resilience – especially in the post-COVID world.” As someone in the medical field, Alice found that “mental fortitude” was the best tool that she could have.
Question: What is one piece of advice you’d give to a person who is transgender or nonbinary and wants to join the military?
Alice was quick to admit that joining the military as a transgender person comes with some extra steps and that there can be a lot of hoops to jump through. But she also quickly added, “there is a good supportive community.” At first, I thought that she was referring to the LGBTQ+ or transgender community in the Air Force. It’s common for people in marginalized communities to rally together for support. And while Alice agreed that is true, in this instance, she was talking about the Air Force in a more global sense. “Even in the rest of the Air Force, that’s not the trans community specifically,” she said. “The military is slowly starting to come around and, you know, be more accepting and supportive of us as individuals and as service members.”
Question: What was coming out like for you – to yourself?
“I grew up in a rural town in Nebraska. And it was very conservative, you know, standard American, conservative family.” But looking back, she can see that the signs were there from early on. “I mean, I was never really a guy. Like, even on the inside, so trying to pretend to be one always made me kind of stick out like a sore thumb.” But she didn’t have the language back then to express her feelings or any exposure to the LGBTQ+ community. “So basically, the most in-depth knowledge that pretty much anybody had on trans people was a Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were very isolated from different types of people.” Alice thought joining the military was her ticket to clear her head of this sense of confusion or inner conflict she felt but had no way to express it. “There’s an ironic twist to it,” she laughed, “it gave me the courage to come out as trans and to go forward with my transition.”
“I think it was something that I needed to do anyway,” she continued, “but [through the military] I was given the mental fortitude and the support system that I needed to proceed with being my authentic self.”
Question: What about coming out to others?
Like many members of the LGBTQ+ community, Alice has had to come out many times. Identity isn’t linear, and as she learned more about herself, she had to make decisions about disclosure. With respect to coming out as trans, Alice shared that she had initially planned to come out to her close circle of friends first, but that her parents inadvertently found out before that happened:
“I’d been wearing eyeliner,” Alice explained. “And my parents saw I had some leftover. So they ended up going through my backpack and finding my makeup, my clothes that I liked to wear, and my research on transgender people. So they put it all in an ashtray and had me light it on fire.”
As a therapist, I hear difficult stories every day. But Alice’s story left me speechless. She wasn’t simply asked to burn clothes and makeup that her parents didn’t like— these items made Alice feel connected to herself. But like so much of Alice’s story, she is quick to add that she has taken that experience and made it meaningful, “It definitely shaped the way that I view a lot of things, and even it’s even affected how I parent.”
Can you say more about that?
“Yeah. I have an 11-year-old-- he is the best. He’s in that Roblox Minecraft phase. But he’s always been, and always will be, free to be whoever he wants to be. And he’s a good kid. He’s a really good kid.”
Question: How did you come out to the military?
“At some point,” she recalled, “my leadership had found out that I was trans.” While they didn’t take steps to separate her from the military, she said their tone was ominous. “They pulled me aside and basically said, ‘If I [sic] find out that you’re doing anything to transition, the next time we have this conversation, you’re going to be in shackles. So I have gone from that to actually fully transitioning. And even I even spoke on a panel about being a trans service member this summer. And I never dreamed-- it’s been quite a surreal experience to watch the Air Force progress in this direction. It’s been an honor to be a part of that process and to be a representative.”
Question: What is it like navigating the process of transition as a service member? What barriers did you encounter?
Like many other service members, experiences broadly may vary based on the luck of the draw. Alice explained that when she first started navigating her transition, she had what she described as a “very conservative old-school commander.” With how the Air Force handled transition-related care at the time, she needed an exception to policy. “An exception to policy needed to be signed off and approved by the Defense Health Agency. It has to go that high up, or at least it did when the process first started. This commander would sit on the paperwork until it went outside the timeframe that it had to be up to DHA. And then, they would send it back down.”
This back and forth went on for about two and a half years. Without that exception to policy, Alice was required to adhere to male guidelines and dress/grooming standards. She was, however, able to start hormones. “While this was something,” Alice explained, “it also put me in the awkward spot where I was now getting the physique of a female, but I still had to adhere to male fitness standards. The same was true for uniforms and other grooming standards.
Question: What helped you overcome those barriers?
Alice credits her support network has been her source of strength and resiliency. “I had good wingmen, a good mentor, and a good mental health team. They advocated for me.” Alice also mentioned that her doctor, LtCol Smalley was particularly helpful. He helped establish the unit that handles all transgender-related care for the Air Force, the THMEU.
If you worked with a therapist, what was your experience like with them? Alice noted that she has primarily had positive experiences with mental health providers, such as therapists and psychiatrists. However, many of them were not specialists in transgender-related healthcare. “I’ve had a couple of psychiatrists who had never worked with a trans person before. So I was the first. In the beginning, they didn’t have a solid plan, but they supported me through the process. They were receptive to needs both as a service member and a transwoman.”
Question: What can the military do to take care of trans servicemembers?
“I think education in trans matters is the first key to success moving forward. Because people are starting to have these conversations in the right circles, finally, having more talks and more communication is always important in any change.”
SPARTA Rapid-fire Questions
Q: What are your career goals?
A: Working on getting out of the military and transitioning to civilian life. I want to be a civilian girl in the cyber world.
Q: How do you stay resilient?
A: In high-stress situations, I focus on where I’m trying to be in my life. Me and my bestie will have a vent/cry session and then pick ourselves up.
Q: What’s one thing you want people to know about transgender military members?
A: We are very misunderstood b/c a lot of people have a lot of different thoughts about what a trans person actually is. This is true even within the trans community. We’re all people; no one will have it 100% right. But keeping up that constant communication, communicating your needs, communicating the needs of a trans service member is necessary. I mean, the Air Force needs the diversity that trans members can bring into the fold because it’s never bad to have a more diverse Air Force.
Q: What can allies do to support the transgender military community?
A: Educate yourself and others. It’s the best thing. Offer support, and be there for us.
Q: What can therapists do to support the transgender military community?
A: The keys are being receptive and open-minded; adopting new ways of thinking/approaching treatment options.
When I reflect on Alice’s story, I keep going back to where she discussed her experience of being outed by her classmates. I can’t help but find myself in awe at the juxtaposition of her story and the statement, “It’s been an honor to be a part of that process and to be a representative.” I’m struck by how many times she was threatened, misrepresented, or seen as an unnecessary burden in one career. And yet, Alice seemed grateful for the opportunity to be part of the generation of service members who saw things start to change. “We were able to start serving honorably and showing them trans people have a lot to offer the military. We’re very strong-willed. We have a lot of great care for others and ourselves. So, in a lot of ways, trans people are almost a perfect fit for the military.” Her positive outlook is as inspiring as it is enviable.
Specifically for mental health providers, Alice had the following to say: “So from somebody who’s had a great mental health support team her entire career, honestly, the keys are being receptive and open-minded, adopting new, new ways outside of the box, giving the best treatment to your patients.” She continued, “Trans people usually are the most educated on trans issues. So if there is something that a provider doesn’t know, then asking the trans person themselves about their experience is usually the quickest way to get educated.” As a provider specializing in trans-related care, I couldn’t agree more. While there are common or shared aspects across the transgender population, understanding identity is a highly individualized experience.