Welcome to a new series of highlighted Stories of SPARTA. These interviews were conducted by E.J. 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, E.J. 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 story is about Chase Payne.
Military Service Questions
Chase (he/he/him) is a Specialist with Oklahoma Army National Guard Electronic Maintenance Technician. He is currently working full-time for the FAA and pursuing a degree in Engineering.
Chase entered the National Guard in 2015/2016 after learning about college and job opportunities from a recruiter at a local career fair during his Senior year of high school.
Question: What is the most important lesson in your career?
"The only person who cares about your career is yourself. You're the only one who is going to push it forward." That being said, command climate matters. Chase happily mentioned that he feels cared for professionally and personally at his current unit, the 90th Troop Command. The first few years of his service "was rough."
Question: What is the most important trait someone needs to be good at your job in the military?
"Confidence. If you can fake it till you make it, you'll be okay. Confidence can carry you. Otherwise, you run the risk of others running over you."
Question: Have you noticed a difference in how you feel/express confidence or how others have received that confidence since your transition?
"Yes. When I was seen as female, I was seen as bossy. Now that people see me [correctly] as male, I don't receive as much backlash. I'm seen as assertive and confident instead of bossy and loud." Although it's more convenient to have his confidence readily accepted, Chase was quick to note his disappointment that these associated gender roles or stereotypes persist. At the same time, however, he pointed out some ways we, as a society and even the military, are starting to move in a better direction. "When the Army moved toward gender-neutral scoring for PT tests-- I was ecstatic. That was a move in the right direction. I love the idea of equality for all – even if that equality sucks."
Serving as his authentic self is important because it allows him more time and energy to devote to his work rather than needing to prove his worth. "For example," he shared, "when I was in guard full time, one of my jobs was to travel unit to unit doing night vision goggle maintenance to make sure they were working." Chase was often met with resistance as he would go to the different units. Our conversation was an interesting reminder that transgender service members have unique insight into sexism that can erode unit cohesion and efficacy.
Question: What is one piece of advice you'd give to a person who is transgender or nonbinary and wants to join the military?
"Do it. It's not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. I was one of the first openly trans service members in both my national guard units.
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/is coming out to yourself like?
Several years into his career, towards the end of 2018/early 2019, Chase decided to come out to himself and his fiancée (now wife). "I always kind of knew I was different," he reflected. "But I grew up in a family where that wasn't going to be okay—it was okay to be gay, but not anything else." Now, faced with a deeper understanding of who he was, it was time to take on this next challenge.
"2019 was a challenging year for me. I came out as trans to myself, my wife, and her family." He had just started therapy, and there was a deep-seated fear that his family of origin or his unit wouldn't support him. According to Chase, his wife, his best friend, and his therapist are the three reasons he was able to get through that time. "In August 2019, I realized it's okay to be who I am."
Question: What was coming out to the military community like? And while we're at it, as someone who was AFAB, do you have any opinions on being visible versus going stealth?
Chase noted that many aspects of being out in the military are situationally or contextually dependent. In his current unit, he says, "Being visible has made my life easier." It's also given him an increased sense of meaning and purpose. "I love being visible. I love being out. I love the 'Hey, where's Payne? I have a question about a soldier.'" Mentorship, education, and being visible to help others have been a welcomed, rewarding surprise. He's quick to add, however, that not every unit environment is like that, and in another context, he could imagine preferring to be stealthy.
You have more brain space for many more things when you're allowed to be yourself. "My first drill being out, was the most relaxing drill I'd had in six years. I wasn't anxious. I felt like I could breathe." Even my therapist noticed. She told me, "The moment you were able to be out and be who you are, you were just happier and out and more you."
Question: What is it like navigating the transition process as a service member?
"The Army has a saying, 'You are what you are in DEERS. So if you're female in DEERS, you're female to the Army."
"I've been out for two years, and I still have not been able to have my gender marker changed," he explained. "My birth certificate is changed. I've been on testosterone since early 2021—almost two years— but my gender marker is not changed in DEERS."
According to Chase, the delay comes down to a review and signature. "All I am waiting for is for the Oklahoma National Guard State Medical Officer to review my paperwork and say yes or no."
The transition process for Chase could have been smoother, although he speaks with such a level head that it is difficult to grasp how challenging it has been fully. From a civilian perspective, the process sounds frustrating; it provides yet another example of how inefficiencies within the system keep transgender service members in limbo longer than necessary. But where I am feeling salty, Chase is unflappable. "I know once it's done, it's going to be worth it because I'm not ready to give up on my career, so I'm just going to keep fighting. And I know it's going to be worth it when it's done."
As a therapist, I understand that therapists and other mental health providers still have a critical gatekeeping role for service members (and civilians) navigating gender transition. I couldn't let the opportunity pass without asking Chase about his experiences.
Question: What was your experience like in therapy?
"Honestly? I love my therapist." But like any relationship, it wasn't perfect from the beginning. "She was the only therapist taking LGBTQ+ clients, and I was her first ever transgender client." It's not an uncommon experience for gender and sexual minority clients to have to educate their therapists – especially in rural areas. "Our first session was actually kind of rough," he recalled. "It took about 4 or 5 months actually to get me to open up." But now their relationship is solid. He describes her as easygoing, but “she will tell you what you need to hear and not necessarily what you want to hear.”
While Chase's therapist might not have immediately understood his gender dysphoria, she did "get" some other critical things about him rather quickly. "She understood what it was like to grow up in a conservative place, to be someone who was very family oriented, but whose family had a skewed view of mental health and didn't like to talk about their problems openly,' he said. In some ways, "the trans stuff ended up being on the back burner. We would talk about it when I needed to, but it wasn't a central focus."
Question: "What can the military do to care for trans service members?"
"Make it easier." There are so many hoops to jump through, and even the most supportive commands, like Chase's unit, need help with how to best support their service members. According to Chase, the military needs to figure out a way to streamline the processes so that transgender service members can receive the care they need and desire and then get back to the mission.
"We still need the loops, we still need the guidelines, and I get that," he shared. But even with those safeguards, there is plenty of room for improvement. "It is so much work, it's so hard and stressful, and it takes valuable time away from training."
Sparta Rapid-fire Questions
Q: What are your career goals?
A: Electrical Engineer or work in missile defense.
Q: How do you stay resilient?
A: Remember where I came from and how much better I am now.
Q: What's one thing you want people to know about transgender military members?
A: We exist. And all we want to do is serve just like you.
Q: What can allies do to support the transgender military community?
A: Naming pronouns and having our back— correct others when they mess up our gender or pronouns because sometimes, we can't. However, you can.
Q: What can therapists do?
A: Listen and be there.
One thing that seems so readily apparent as I complete these interviews with Sparta members is how much they desire to be good at what they do in the military and professionally. Chase is a devoted soldier and wants to be there to do his job. He is so engaging and thoughtful in his responses. One of the things that seemed abundantly clear in our conversation was that individual unit leaders could meaningfully impact how a unit responds to and supports its transgender service members. Although he did not say so directly, I gathered that while empathetic leaders understand that the individual service member has little control over system-wide processes, other leaders may misconstrue or misattribute systemic inefficiencies, with an individual service member being a problem or inconvenience.
I couldn't have been more thrilled that Chase mentioned how his gender dysphoria was not the sole or central focus of his work in therapy. If that surprises you, I will offer that it mirrors my experiences working with transgender and nonbinary clients. Clients generally know who they are. Sometimes there is some work to be done around language—finding it, refining it, etc. And once they know, there is a process of getting comfortable with that reality, of course. It's not easy to come to terms with being a highly politicized and often persecuted minority in America. What is essential to understand for therapists, leaders, family members, service members, and allies, though, is that a majority of the work often focuses on themes of family, spiritual or sociocultural messages that people pick up along the way, or the quality of life barriers that exist to prevent someone from valuing the truth of themselves. The role of providers working with transgender and gender-diverse individuals is to serve as a conduit for accessing care, remove barriers and reduce stigma, and uphold the client's autonomy and right to self-determination (Coleman et al., 2022, S7).