Before beginning EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), the last therapist I had for my Complex PTSD asked me to recount for her all of the major traumas in my life. The therapist abruptly informed me that I could stop when I’d reached ten.
The first trauma I cited was definitely one of the worst. It occurred one evening in rural West Virginia when I was around 8 or 9. We were lost trying to get to the funeral of a distant relative I’d never met. So my father stopped at a gas station to ask directions. Ever curious, I was on his heels as he entered the office area of the filling station.
But as the attendant was giving us the route to the funeral home a man that was severely bleeding burst through the door and collapsed onto the floor. I’ll never forget that his arms looked like strips of bacon. He was screaming the N-word and pointing to a group of black men gathered across the street as the culprits that had cut him up with knives. Looking at them through the window of the station, I could see that some of them were laughing. As a kid who’d been sheltered in the white suburbs ringing Washington, D.C., that was my youthful introduction to adult black males.
As I entered my teen years, I received a further glimpse into our nation’s festering race problems. At the time I was working on a tobacco farm in Southern Maryland alongside some of the black classmates that I attended middle and high school with. The shocker for me this time came during what the white farm owner called the “dinner meal.”
Because I was white, I was invited into their farm house for lunch. While my black classmates however were forced to eat outside. The farmer made a point of telling me that no black folks were allowed inside his home. This was 50 miles outside of our nation’s capital in the late 1970s.
One of my earliest basic training haircuts occurred at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, soon after I’d turned 19. I still vividly remember those minutes in the chair because the black barber who cut my hair used a straight razor on my neck afterwards. He appeared quite perplexed as to why I was so nervous about him shaving my neck, but the truth is all I could think about at the time was the gas station incident.
Despite the leadership efforts of the officers that I served under to achieve equality between the races and the sexes in the Army, the results were a mixed-bag. Throughout my career, I witnessed various incidents of racial discrimination happening in all directions. I witnessed white’s discriminating against blacks. I saw blacks discriminating against people who were white. And on several occasions I was the victim of that discrimination. But in the eyes of my military leadership, the discrimination was only able to be recognized and actionable when it occurred against minorities.
The prevailing view was that whites couldn’t be discriminated against by minorities. When asked when white history month was? Some leaders would joke and tell the troops that it was every other month. Beneath the calm surface, there were clearly racial issues during the time that I served. But everyone pretended there wasn’t, because their evaluation reports depended upon not having any reportable incidents.
One of the more notable incidents of racial discrimination and sexual harassment that I endured happened during my Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Course (ANCOC). I was in my mid 30s then, an NCO heading into the senior enlisted ranks. One of my peers, a black staff sergeant, often told me if any of us would make it to sergeant major, that it would be me. Despite my potential for that rank, I bailed due to sexual harassment for being gay long before that could have ever happened.
I received a full and hateful taste of discrimination during that ANCOC course. Despite having the highest academic grade point average in my class, our black instructor gave all of the important leadership jobs to the black service members in the class. That same black course instructor gave me a low rating on a critical drill and ceremony evaluation. I found out later the date marked was on a day that he’d been out sick. The fill-in instructor never made any comments that I’d screwed anything up.
Things got much nastier on the field exercise for the course when the black instructor and three of my black classmates decided to eat lunch near me one afternoon; using the whole meal period to taunt me, describing in great detail male on male sex acts and remarking how disgusting it was. They did this while talking directly at me, while studying my reaction, and trying to elicit one. But I remained silent.
Coincidentally, one of the black soldiers involved in that sexual harassment incident held the second highest grade point average in the class, behind me. It was quite clear that the group of them resented me being in the lead and would have liked nothing more than to see me booted out of the Army for being gay. They didn’t even have any evidence that I was gay. They just perceived me that way.
By the time graduation rolled around in ANCOC, I took comfort in the fact that I’d graduate with at least some kind of honors because I still held the highest academic average. For that same accomplishment I’d graduated as the Distinguished Honor Graduate of my Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course (BNCOC) course a couple years prior. I’d been given a special diploma for the accomplishment.
But on the morning of graduation from ANCOC, the black instructor approached me, informing me that I wouldn’t receive any special honors because of my substandard performance evaluation during the drill and ceremony evaluation.
Needless to say, I was livid, but I kept my military bearing and participated in the graduation. But instead of departing the NCO Academy afterward with my peers, I instead stayed and demanded a meeting with the head enlisted supervisor of the NCO Academy. During which I pointed out how I was given a substandard evaluation for drill and ceremony that was signed by the black instructor on a day that he wasn’t even at work. I of course couldn’t talk about the sexual harassment that had occurred for fear of getting formally labeled as being gay.
My claim about the evaluation dates and him not being at work were verified and found to be true. But the Academy’s enlisted leadership didn’t want to hear that something like this had happened. The best they offered was to upgrade my course evaluation document with a bullet comment that I’d graduated with the highest grade point average in the class. My dreams of being the distinguished honor graduate a second time were killed by reverse discrimination.
When I arrived at Fort Drum, New York for what would be my last duty assignment, the first job I was assigned to was to serve as a platoon sergeant. I had 41 soldiers. In that frigid, cold Upstate New York area, my leadership joked that half the base was suicidal and the other half were alcoholics.
In that first year of being a platoon sergeant, I had major participation in separating 11 of those service members from the military for severe behavior issues. Five of those separated went to prison for offenses such as loaded guns in their barracks rooms, car thefts, and armed robbery. Because Fort Drum didn’t have a jail, I had to keep those bad apples in my platoon until their court martial was finished and they were shipped off to a military prison. As someone who went in to serve as a tank and truck mechanic, being a cop without a weapon wasn’t what I signed up for.
All of these soldiers headed to prison were minorities. Most of them were black. It was revealed during the court martial hearings that some of them had prior felony convictions. Some had been involved in street gangs. The recruiters put them in to make their numbers. My squad leaders and I were serving in a rear support unit, we weren’t trained to be military police officers. Nor were we armed in garrison. But yet we were expected to deal with these hardcore criminals until they went to prison. It was scary stuff. To this day, I’ve got serious trauma from it.
The morning of my first ever leadership job in the military while assigned to a maintenance unit in Germany a black soldier threatened to kick my ass and pound me to a pulp if I ever told him to clean the barracks again. The same thing happened in a unit at Fort Hood during barracks cleaning. At that same Fort Hood unit, soon after getting my staff sergeant stripes, another black soldier threatened me with an axe. He got away with it by claiming he was joking.
I gave orders, some of them quite unpleasant, to thousands of white soldiers during my military career. I don’t recall any of them them ever threatening me with violence for doing so.
As the weeks passed at Fort Drum waiting for the court martial hearings to take place two of my squad leaders began to have mental break downs. They were literally crying in my office from the mental stress and from the fear of dealing with these bad guys.
One evening, during one of those counseling sessions. Which were comprised of reading the written statements that I’d written about them, to them, before asking them to sign, one of the black soldiers who’d been caught with a loaded gun in his room during a health and welfare inspection made a point of telling me that “he was really starting to hate white people.”
I responded by filing a formal equal opportunity complaint against him. Although my complaint was investigated by a black NCO from battalion headquarters, he found no instance of racism having had occurred. This NCO instead described it as a “discipline issue.”
The same black soldier who’d told me “he was really starting to hate white people” later wrote a letter during a field exercise addressed specifically to me. In the letter he threatened to kill members of the platoon. I had the vibe that I was one of the people he intended to kill.
Despite supposedly facing around 200 years of criminal charges, the command had sent these gang-bangers who were facing a court martial on the field exercise with their M16s. So throughout the exercise, I was deathly worried whether these minorities that were facing all these criminal charges had any live ammo. I further worried that these criminals were going to slit my throat in my sleep because I was the one who’d initially turned them into the criminal investigative services for their crimes, which led to all the charges. Let’s just say I wasn’t sleeping very well.
After the field exercise and back in garrison, these gang-bangers that had been recruited into the Army were now refusing to even come to work in the maintenance shop because they were heading to prison. They didn’t think things could get any worse for them by adding those charges onto their already long list of crimes. So they started locking their barracks room doors, refused to answer their doors, and just flat out refused to report for duty.
Being the platoon sergeant, at that point, I took over the job of dutifully writing them counseling statements for each infraction. I kept them at the maintenance shop during the day. The command kept them on extra duty at battalion until late hours in the evenings. The gang-bangers response to being on extra duty was to to steal the colonel’s laptop by climbing over a wall and through the suspended ceiling tiles to his office.
Fearing they had guns, and that they would hurt me or others, I told the unit commander that I wasn’t getting these hoodlums out of their rooms any more unless he issued me a handgun from the arms room. The commander responded by calling the military police. The military police showed up with a SWAT Team to remove them. The Army put them in the civilian jail in Lowville, New York to await their court martials.
Years after I’d retired from the military when I began to live as a transgender woman, I was confronted with the grim statistics of violence against trans women like me. I also knew trans women of color were even more likely to face this violence. But through research I discovered a harsh truth that few wish to talk about. Which is most of the violence that occurs against trans women happens in minority communities. It’s literally black on black violence. But it’s not politically correct to say that, despite it being true. So if you stay out of those communities, then your risk of being harmed as a trans woman goes way down. White trans women seem to be well aware of this and act accordingly. That’s part of the reason I moved to Portland, where it’s nicknamed “The Pale Northwest.”
In Portland, I had two incidents of being harassed about my transgender status. Both perpetrators were black males.
So at this point in life, I know a few things about racism, discrimination, and racial based violence because of my lived experiences. L’Oréal did the right thing when it fired transgender model Munroe Bergdorf for calling all white people racist. As for all those social justice warriors that keep lecturing people like me about our perceived white privilege? Well, they can just go screw themselves too.