This interview was 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 than other SOS postings. 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.
Military Service Questions
Alleria Stanley (she/her/hers) was a Radiology Technologist in the United States Army and is SPARTA’s Communications Director. She was stationed at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital (GLWACH) in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She retired from the Army on February 28th, 2023, after twenty years of service.
On a chilly autumn evening, I had the opportunity to speak with Alleria Stanley, SPARTA’s Communications Director to discuss her experiences as a transwoman serving in the United States Army. The interview was supposed to last an hour, with fairly standard questions for SPARTA’s Stories of SPARTA page. SPARTA had graciously agreed to take me on as an intern of sorts, gathering service members’ stories. Unfortunately, as it turns out – I am a much better therapist and advocate than a journalist. So our session quickly evolved into a transition story – but certainly not one limited to gender.
Question: So, how did you decide to join the military?
“In the days following the terrorist attack on September 11, I remember working just days straight – sleeping on the floor, staying there for days. But then, things went back to normal. I would be at work scrolling through the news sites, and I’d see, as Afghanistan kicked off, this war is happening to defend our country… and I'm listening to someone who is like, “Why am I paying an extra $5.17?” I thought, “I'm in the wrong place. This is not where I need to be in my life right now.”
Alleria decided to join the Army after September 11, 2001. When that tragedy happened, she worked as a mid-level management overseeing operations in large call centers for the rental car service industry. The juxtaposition of the attacks and the banalities of corporate life led her to believe that she was meant to do something more – be involved in something bigger than what corporate life had to offer. “I sent my resignation email, closed the laptop, and got on a plane. I went from living in a glorious hotel room in India paid for by my company to an open squad bay with 60 other men in Fort Knox, Kentucky. And if it wasn't in my wall locker, I didn't need it.”
Alleria graduated from training in Combat Aviation, working on Apache helicopters, and deployed to Afghanistan shortly after that. She later changed careers and transitioned into Radiology.
So it sounds like you’ve had quite a few transitions in your life.
Yes, of course. Gender isn’t the only one. You get married; you get your job; you lose your job; you get divorced; you get home; you're kicked out of your home, and you retire. There are all these different transitions. When talking to folks, I like to point this out and wonder aloud, “If only there were a group of people out there who knew a lot about transitioning, especially a lot of it!”
It’s a point that probably many of us haven’t truly considered before Trans people are experts in transitions.
Alleria continued, “I like to think, ‘What can we do to tap into how the trans experience can be applied elsewhere in society? Because the transition for transgender folks is often brutal. And it's a struggle, but trying to make life fit, adapt to new roles, all these different things – there’s so much that can be applied to a much larger audience. Imagine if you had folks who, instead of ostracizing trans people, recognized that you were an expert resource.
How might that help me as I transition? I’m becoming a supervisor. I've never been a supervisor before. What are some ways to transition into that role? I'm getting married; I'm getting divorced. My spouse wants to open up the marriage. How do we try these different transitions?”
Another lesson that people can learn from the trans community is patience. Gender transition, much like every other life transition, takes time. Very few transitions in this world are instantaneous. But people still hold those expectations. “Transgender people tell you – essentially no matter the transition you’re facing: “It's going to take time. It’s a long process with steps forward, steps backward, and missteps going down the wrong path. All kinds of things.”
Question: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?
“Patience and resilience.” For transition specifically, Alleria offered, “Don’t look for the finished product – accept and revel in small changes as they come along.” For folks assigned male at birth (AMAB), she suggests it might be the first time you don’t have to shave your face. The first time you can delay going to get waxed. “Revel in the small steps instead of being hung up on, ‘But I'm not done yet!’ Some people never are. And so if you focus on, I just want to be done, that may be an impossible goal. You can find the tiny victories if you focus on smaller wins.”
She’s quick to point out that a small-wins philosophy applies to just about anywhere in life. “You know those questions you get on a questionnaire – Where do you want to be in five years or ten years? What about asking, What do you want tomorrow to be like? What makes for a good day? And yes, you should have some idea of where you want to go and what kind of goals you want to have, but you need to know what a good day looks like. It’s important to reflect and say to yourself, “This was a good day.”
What was coming out like for you then? Because I mean, we know how the story ends. And it ends with you having this positive, amazing, effervescent kind of outlook on everything.
The first thing Alleria points out is that we need to eliminate the idea that coming out is a singular event. It is something that queer people, especially trans people, have to do repeatedly. “Look,” she starts in her gentle yet direct way, “You can fully transition, and you will still be the woman at the urologist to get a prostate exam. You will still be the guy who's there to get a pap smear. You're going to come out over and over. There will be some database somewhere that will have to be updated. You'll have to find court records to go and prove – yet, once again – this is who I am.”
As far as the most challenging part of the transition for Alleria was the beginning. “I guess the hardest would be first; I had to come out to myself. I always knew I was different. Even as a little kid. I grew up in a rural town in South Carolina – not too different from where I am now in rural Missouri.” As a child of the ’70s, Alleria remembers a time well before the internet, “You had three channels on TV, a movie theater, and the library,” she laughs. “I loved the library. I couldn’t stop reading. But it wouldn't have been there even if I had known what to look for. Except on the fringes of our culture, no one was talking about [being trans], and where ever it might have been, it would’ve been hyper-sexualized or just considered a freak show.
Do you remember seeing or being aware of trans people?
“I do remember reading about Christine Jorgensen, but other than that – there was Bugs Bunny, who would get into a dress now and then. “
With such minimal exposure and no vocabulary to express how she was feeling, Alleria continued along her journey from childhood into adolescence. To the outside observer, she was, in many ways, conventional. “I went to all-male boarding schools for ninth through 12th grade. I am one of the very few female graduates of a very prestigious all-male boarding school,” she laughs. “And, again, I knew I was different. But certainly, that's not the place to bring it up.”
The internet helped Alleria find the words to help her understand what she was feeling. “It was in the 90s, the internet was coming online, and you had these computer networks like AOL online and prodigy, and you had these little chat rooms. One of the first questions anyone would type would be a/s/l for age, sex, and location. And I will see opportunities here to explore – to type “F” and participate in role-playing games. They were a great opportunity to play – same as theater. I didn't know what it was until finally, back then, it was called transsexual. And I went, “Ah, yes! I would like it if my body was different and not because I don't like the parts… because they don't match who I am. And then it just all started falling into place.”
So that’s how you found out. Whom did you tell?
Around this time, Alleria started a relationship with her wife, who was bisexual, but also could not be out. “This is who you are,” she said. And we would talk and talk. With her, I learned and felt what acceptance felt like. I was not judged. When we were living in Germany (between 2003-2006), we would travel to France and go to Paris.” Their community in Germany was small, so traveling made it easier to be out in the world. “We would go, and it would be just the two of us – just the two of us girls. I have this distinct memory of her helping me – we're at the top of the Eiffel Tower. And that was my first experience using a female bathroom. At the top of the Eiffel Tower.”
Oh, my goodness. So she saw you.
“Yes, she saw me. We had three kids, and this is who I am, and it’s okay.” It was more than okay. Alleria’s wife encouraged her. In many ways, they also had a fairly typical military family experience, although the cuteness carried over. When Alleria and her wife were separated due to deployments, they used to look at the constellation Orion as a way to feel connected. And then I'd come home from the Army, and there'd be a dress laid out on the bed,” she recalls.
It is a beautiful story. Alleria and her wife's love for each other is the type of love and acceptance that I think we want so desperately to believe in but don’t hear enough about – especially in the queer and trans communities. People are so quick to rattle off the high rates of divorce but much more reserved in sharing stories about the love that is possible. It is possible to love and support your spouse in being who they are. “When we were pregnant, she maintained her birth control prescription… and the pills still got used, but just by a different recipient. 'I certainly don't need them' she'd say. 'You use them!' Pure estrogen!”
“But then cancer came.”
“And amid all this, I remember my wife saying, ‘you need to get your ears pierced.’ But, of course, men couldn’t have piercings back then, and I never had enough time for them to heal before returning to work. It just wasn’t going to happen.” However, when her wife died, Alleria was given sufficient time off – so she pierced as a way to grieve and celebrate the beauty of their relationship despite the painful loss. She also got “a very unique one of a kind tattoo – a butterfly with the pink ribbon in it. And the spots on the wings are the constellation Orion. So there's this enduring connection right there on my leg.”
Alleria explained that she not only used it as an enduring connection to her wife but also as a connection to her femininity – since transitioning was not yet an option.
We’ve talked about how your wife saw you. When was the first time you looked in the mirror and saw yourself?
Alleria explains that It's been an evolution – probably 7-10 years since she first got to see glimpses of herself in a way that felt aligned with whom she knew herself to be. “In the beginning, it’s fleeting. Now and then, you’ll hear someone say, “I saw her!” And it’s so exciting for those little moments. Or I might listen to a recording, and I hear her. I didn't hear the old voice, or I wasn't seeing a man in the mirror. And it's one of the reasons I always love when I come across a tall cis woman because it's reaffirming for me to see someone who reminds me that women come in all shapes and sizes.
Question: What is one piece of advice you’d give to a person who is transgender or nonbinary and wants to join the military?
Be ready. The military is a challenging space. It is that if you weren't transgender, so being transgender may make it more so. Remember that you're there to serve your nation. Ultimately, in the military, you're fighting and serving with those to your left and your right. Ensure that you are offering your very best to them - the best of who you are and what you are capable of at all times.
Coming out is not a singular event, and in asking these questions, it seems necessary to underscore that it is not my intent to portray it as such. It’s interesting, however, to look at and consider the differences in experiences related to coming out to yourself and then coming out to others – especially in the military community.
Question: What was coming out to the military community like?
“Along the way, I'd had to get my security clearance, and part of that process was an interview. And I remember sitting in a bland old classroom or something with the investigator. During his investigation, he figured out that I was transgender. This was when transgender service was still not authorized. And I had to say the words, “I’m trans,” for the first time in a military context.” Alleria was sure that she had just ruined her career. But the investigator didn’t seem to see it that way. He saw someone who was not a security risk. Once again, Alleria being who she was wasn’t bad. “This investigator has no idea the impact that he had. He really made a difference. You see, he was curious whether I would admit it or hide it if pressed. Was I vulnerable to blackmail? And, in that room, I admitted to that investigator the truth. And he nodded and that was the end of that."
Question: What is it like navigating the transition process as a service member?
Alleria explains that she started going to therapy a few years later during her second tour in Germany and continued once she got to her next duty station (Fort Belvoir). “I started going to therapy mainly because of PTSD – from Afghanistan, from losing my wife… all of these things. And I had a wonderful counselor who was a lieutenant commander in the Public Health Service. And, again, there is a dance because you're never genuinely private with your records in the military. But with his help, I got a medical profile to wear artificial nails. Ostensibly, it was to prevent nail biting. But I got artificial nails. And so, again, a little bit of femininity emerged.
On June 30, 2016, Alleria walked into her counselor’s office and asked him to step out into the lobby. It was a public place. There, I could look at him and formally say without hiding, “Sir, I am transgender.” Secretary Carter's policy was life-changing. However, she still had to endure difficult situations where colleagues or higher-ups would say bigoted things about trans people. Rather than focus on that aspect, Alleria remembers being embraced by the gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members she was serving with. “I was fortunate to have several other members of the alphabet community who were there because they came out through Don't Ask, Don't Ask, Don't Tell going away five years previous. Like, we're here. Let's help you along. You're one of us. It’s okay. Welcome. We've got you.”
Question: Can we go back and talk about therapists? It sounds like you’ve had positive experiences.
“I've had some not great ones, but it's, I think, I think lots of people have those. And it's a matter of working through or having the ability to seek out a different counselor. As it is a relationship, if your relationship is not working, you have to break up. And it's perfectly okay to do so. And while it might be nice to think that any therapist can treat any patient, to get into things on a deeper level, you need therapists who accept you. That's part of the problem – many therapists bring their worldview into counseling sessions. Maybe that’s okay if you’re in a diverse area, but if you’re no – it can be challenging to find someone willing to step out of their comfort zone to give you the care you need.”
Question: So it’s apparent that you encountered a lot of barriers. What helped you overcome those barriers?
Perhaps, ironically, the Army has been a large influence. One of the things we memorize early on is the Soldier's Creed and embedded within that is the Warrior Ethos:
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
My Soldiers whom I've led will recognize where I'm going with this. At first glance, it seems like this is all about combat and the battlefield. Sure. But, there's more to it. It's about Life. Each morning, when we wake up, we should ask ourselves, "What is my mission today?" Now, it may be to pass an important test or get a job, or do other major tasks. Perhaps, it's to help a friend or family member who's having a challenge that day. Some days, it may be to just get through the day. But, we need to know what our mission for the day is. I will never quit. Simple, really, don't give up. I will never accept defeat. Sounds like the last one, doesn't it? Life will try to hand you defeat. Ask you to take it, to embrace it. Don't. Don't accept it. Don't give in or marginalize or whittle down goals. None of that. Finally, I will never leave a fallen comrade. Sometimes, that fallen comrade is in the mirror, so we need to help ourselves when we stumble. Those four lines have helped me to adopt a Warrior Ethos from the battlefield to Life's Everyday Challenges. And to overcome the multitude of barriers that have come my way.
SPARTA Rapid-fire Questions
Q: What are your career goals?
A: Get to retirement! After retirement, I want to speak publicly and continue to work in LGBTQ+ advocacy, particularly with a focus on the military and military families.
Q: How do you stay resilient?
A: Recognize that to be angry or upset is a choice. I use the saying, “Hunt for the good stuff.” (Thank you, Dr. Reivich!) It means that it’s easy for us to see and latch onto the negative in our life. The positive is right there, too, but we have to work harder to see it. Look for it!
Q: What’s one thing you want people to know about transgender military members?
A: We’ve always been here. As a military and society, we are stronger by the diversity that makes us up.
Q: What can allies do to support the transgender military community?
A: Speak up. When someone makes a ‘small joke’, speak up. If someone is being marginalized, speak up. Don’t let it happen in your area. And remember, not everyone is out, so someone who is transgender may be in the room and no one knows – but they hear you and they see you.
Q: Anything else you want people to know?
A: Transgender people are people like the rest of us. We have our dreams, our fears, our career aspirations, our hopes for a family, and so forth. We are different but then, in so many ways, we all are different. Someone being transgender is not new and there are documented cases going far back in history and across many cultures; there are even examples in our military going back to at least the 1800s and the Civil War! There are just more people talking about being transgender now. Which is good. The more we talk about things, then the more we learn. There are many characteristics and distinctions and experiences of other people that we don't always understand because we haven't lived them ourselves. I often say that while my wife lived and died from cancer, I do not fully understand what it is like to have cancer oneself, even though I was that close to the experience of someone who did. The more we learn, then the more we grow and expand our knowledge and experience as a culture and society. And that makes us so much better for each passing generation.
Because Alleria’s interview was the first one in the series, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. As a therapist, I speak with people all the time, and I hear their stories. But I listen to them with an entirely different purpose. As a therapist, I’m never just having a conversation with someone. 90% of me is present at the moment, and 10% is holding space and perspective – listening for themes and places to explore further to help my clients meet their goals. There are so many pieces to take away.
First, I realize that we need more positive stories about trans and nonbinary folks living lives full of love and wonder. Pain is an inescapable part of being human. But there are too many people who believe that coming out – as gay, as lesbian, as trans, as nonbinary, or otherwise, means that they are unlovable. That they need to choose between being loved and being themselves. It’s a false dichotomy.
The second takeaway is something that I will forever refer to as the Wolf In the Mirror Exercise. At one point in our interview, Alleria said she wanted to ask me a question.
“So I've got a question for you. Have you been able to wrap your mind around what it's like to wake up with a mind that doesn’t match your body?”
“No,” I have to admit sheepishly.
“So tomorrow morning,” she says, “You wake up, and you do the usual things: you get up, go off to the bathroom to start the day. You go to the mirror, turn on the lights, and look in the mirror. What do you see?”
“I see someone who looks like she didn’t get enough sleep and needs to drink more water,” I reply dryly.
“Right, but she’s recognizable, yes,” she asks.
I nod in agreement, so she continues.
“So I mean, you look like this, right? And maybe it’s like, “Oh, that wasn't there before…” but all of the basic things are definitely there. And what you see aligns with “woman,” right?”
“Alright. Next morning. You wake up with the alarms going off; you roll out of bed, go to the bathroom, turn on lights, and look in the mirror. And you see a wolf. A wolf is looking back at you from the mirror. You're probably like, “Okay, whatever I ate last night – I am not eating that again. That’s not right. I'm just moving on,” and go about your day.
“Next day, you wake up, you get up. You go to the bathroom and turn on the light. And the wolf is still there. And this happens day after day – it should be a woman staring back. But you're like, “This is not matching.” And no matter what you try to look at or do, every time you turn on the light and look, it doesn't match.
No matter what you do, you cannot get that reflection to match what your brain tells you that you're supposed to be seeing. So, of course, you’re like, “What the hell is that wolf doing there? I’m not a wolf….” But the mirror says otherwise. Is that possible? Meanwhile, everyone around you tells you that what you see in the mirror is who you are. But you just can’t shake the feeling that they’re wrong.
That’s what it’s like to have your mind and body not match.
About Emma Smith
Emma Smith, M.S., LPC (she/her) is a queer therapist in private practice in Washington, DC; specializes in sexual and gender identity, and holds advanced certifications in clinical trauma and transgender healthcare. She has a long-standing passion for LGBTQ+ rights and has participated in publicity campaigns and lobbying days specifically in support of transgender service members since 2017. Emma is a doctoral candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision from Walden University in Minneapolis, MN. She is also a graduate of the University of Scranton.