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.
Our first Story of SPARTA is Vivian Jaquith.
Military Service Questions
Vivian Jaquith (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Quality Assurance Officer for a Submarine Squadron. She is currently stationed at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine.
Vivian decided to join the Navy after completing high school JROTC in West-Central Florida. Like many service members, she wanted to be involved in something bigger than herself, and the Navy seemed to have many opportunities in STEM-related fields. When she enlisted in the Navy, her recruiter told her that she had scored highly on the ASVAB. Her score allowed her to pursue specialized training in nuclear propulsion. Fourteen years later, Vivian has served on two different submarines. She speaks positively about her experience, adding that serving openly as a woman has improved her outlook.
Question: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?
“To get what you truly want out of the military—and this goes beyond transgender care and into almost any role that you take on in leadership or as a service member-- you have to be your best advocate. Which is different than doing it all by yourself.” Success and strength depend on hard work and dedication, but perhaps most importantly, on communication and teamwork—from peers, teammates, and leaders.
Question: What is one piece of advice you’d give to a person who is transgender or nonbinary and wants to join the military?
“Make sure you’re joining for the right reasons because military service is not easy,” she offered. “It’s demanding and taxing on you. You sign a contract to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. And that is what is expected of you. And being able to serve openly is an important factor in being able to fulfill those expectations and commitment.”
In terms of increased opportunities for service, Vivian seems to believe that we are heading in the right direction. “Visibility matters,” she said, “and the demographic that serves in the military should reflect the demographics of the United States.”
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?
“Coming out to myself was both an exciting, nervous, and scary part of my life, but in really good ways. It was exciting because there was this part inside of me that needed to come out. I needed to fulfill and be true to myself [Vivian].” Even with this conviction, Vivian noted that the social constraints made her nervous. “I was serving on a submarine in a division full of men. I know who I am, but I was concerned due to close quarters and reckoning with the realities [of life on a submarine].” She was also aware of the potential threat coming out might have on her personal life. “I was established in my career and with my family. I didn’t know how my family would react. I didn’t know any other trans people.”
Question: What was coming out to the military community like?
Vivian explained that she came out in late 2019: “The ban was in place,” she said, “but I had to do something—regardless of the career consequences I would’ve been facing.” She explained that her partner at the time knew she was trans, “I could be myself at home. I stayed in that box for a little bit, but compartmentalizing myself like that, especially once COVID [became a factor], was particularly isolating.”
“Realizing that I needed to do something about my gender – it was like I busted through a brick wall. I wanted to be fully myself in the world.” Vivian was essentially required to go back and forth between identities if she wanted to live as herself. According to Vivian, having an outlet to express her identity outside of work meant that she could show up and be MM1 Petty Officer Jaquith on the boat. “It’s about readiness. It’s about being 100% ready to fight--to do what is called upon us and what we are charged with as service members.”
Question: What is it like navigating the transition process as a service member?
With respect to the transition specifically, Vivian came out to her primary care manager (PCM), an Independent Duty Corpsman (IDC), who was not well-informed about the process and therefore referred her to mental health. The embedded mental health unit (geared towards submariners, specifically) didn’t have much knowledge of trans service either. “It took six weeks to get an appointment,” she said, “but once I got in, there was a lot of “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do. Trans service isn’t allowed, and it isn’t allowed on submarines.” She was, however, able to receive a diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria.
Shortly after receiving her diagnosis, Vivian deployed. In talking with her, it’s evident that Vivian felt committed to her job and team. Perhaps transition concerns were going to have to wait until homecoming. During a routine port stop, however, a new corpsman assigned to the unit came up to Vivian. “He said that he was able to help connect me with therapists locally,” she recalled. “This provider went out there and reached out to me. He actually looked out for me and referred me to providers so I could continue my care and meet medical necessity requirements for transition. If it weren’t for that corpsman, I probably wouldn’t be as far along in my transition as I am.”
Question: What happened once you got in to see the local provider?
According to Vivian, she got an appointment with mental health on base. She described those early appointments as black and white and heavily focused on standards, procedures, and constraints. “Relationships evolve,” Vivian noted, “and he [the psychiatrist] recognized that I was better when I was able to be myself. He started using correct pronouns for me and even reached out to the Transgender Care Team for the Navy so that I could get information and pursue my transition.” It’s been lots of paperwork and processes; policies changing since then. However, it’s been overwhelmingly worth it.”
Question: So it’s apparent that you encountered a lot of barriers. What helped you overcome those barriers?
“SPARTA was a huge resource and the only organization I found that advocated for transgender service members. I asked for help, and the Navy chapter leader helped me connect with others. I would not be where I am today without Sparta. That’s for sure.” Additionally, SPARTA came through and connected Vivian with local service members who were able to support her. One member reached out and allowed Vivian to stay with her so that she could be herself when she wasn’t at work.
“What can the military do to improve the lives of trans service members as a whole?”
Trans military service is not codified into the law but merely policy (Executive Order on Enabling All Qualified Americans to Serve Their Country in Uniform, January 25, 2021). This means that any future administration and ban transgender people from joining or serving in the future. Vivian, for example, will be at 16 years of service by the time 2024 rolls around. Will she be able to serve until retirement? While she certainly hopes so, she deserves to have her service protected like any other honorably serving member.
Sparta Rapid-fire Questions
Q: What are your career goals?
A: My next career goal is to serve openly on a submarine for my last sea tour and pursue advanced qualifications to advance in rank.
Q: How do you stay resilient?
A: Being my own best advocate. Be whatever it takes to be a better you and to be better for the team.
Q: What’s one thing you want people to know about transgender military members?
A: We are not special circumstances. We want to be 100% ourselves so we can bring 100% effort to the team.
Q: What can allies do to support the transgender military community?
A: Have some empathy. Come down to our level, put yourself in our shoes, and see what we go through daily. Whether in power, a peer, or a provider, you can make a difference by being supportive.
Q: Anything else you want people to know?
A: No. That’s really all there is to it. We want to be better for ourselves in order to be better for the country.
About Emma Smith
Emma Smith, M.S., LPC (she/her) is a queer therapist in private practice in Washington, DC. She 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.