MILWAUKEE — Early in January the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced it added gender identity to health records in December of 2021. It's estimated that there are more than 15,000 transgender people in the military community.
In a statement VA Secretary Denis McDonough said, “all Veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves. This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender diverse Veterans helps us better serve them.”
Colonel Sheri Swokowski served in the Wisconsin National Guard as a federal civil servant and on active duty for more than three decades starting in the 70s, and she knows first hand just how important this type of gender-affirming healthcare is.
"When a person is allowed to be themselves, there's a weight lifted off their shoulders and individual personal readiness goes up. Anytime personal readiness goes up, unit readiness goes up in turn," Swokowski said. "The military trains people to fight, so they shouldn't be surprised when transgender service members fight for their healthcare."
Swokowski is a transgender women, although she didn't transition until after she served in the National Guard. She said while serving she knew her assigned gender didn't match her true gender, but due to policies at the time she had to suppress those feelings.
After retiring from the National Guard, Swokowski moved to D.C. where she was a Lead Instructor at the Army Force Management School.
But she said when she transitioned in 2007, she was immediately let go from that position. A few months later she was hired at the Pentagon as a senior analyst.
"While I couldn't serve my country authentically while in uniform, they were sure happy to have my skill set afterwards," Swokowski said.
Since retiring from the National Guard, Swokowski has seen several positive steps when it comes to making the military community more inclusive for transgender and non-binary folks.
In 2016 she saw the end of a long-term ban on openly transgender people serving in military. However, was disappointed in 2019 to see that ban reversed by the Trump administration. But, was happy to see the ban once again come to an end by the Biden administration in 2021.
In the summer of 2021, the VA also announced it would offer gender-confirmation surgery to veterans. This year's announcement of adding gender identity to medical records is the latest step applauded by Swokowski.
"This is a huge step forward for transgender and non-binary veterans. It's a positive step by the nation's second largest employer to acknowledge that gender is not binary," she said. "What it's going to result in is more accurate health care records, and I think everybody would like their health care record to be as accurate as possible. It will provide more consistent and appropriate care across the board."
The move is also celebrated by those outside the military community.
Osha Towers, the Director of Community Organizing at Diverse and Resilient in Milwaukee said, "Doing something at the national level, that this is coming from our president, shows that this is something that really matters. And then it's coming also from the military. So I think it's something that's really going to push things forward not just in the military, but just across the board."
Towers said non gender affirming health care can lead transgender people to not seek out medical care when needed, which in turn can be dangerous.
Additionally, according to a UCLA School Of Law Willliams Institute study on Suicide Thoughts and Attempts Among Transgender Adults, 51% of respondents who had experienced at least four instances of discrimination in the past year attempted suicide. The study also says, "9% of respondents who wanted but did not receive gender-affirming care reported past year suicide attempts."
Towers said gender identity on health records is a great first step, but they said the policy needs to be paired with education for those implementing it.
"Getting medical facilities to actually be on the same page and making sure they're fully supporting folks in a way that isn't just saying 'oh well you filled out the paper work, but now I'm going to berate you with 50 million questions about your identity' or something like that," Towers said.
Towers said this change will also likely be reassuring to transgender youth interested in joining the military.
"If there's someone that's interested in being part of the military, but that's been something that's been stopping them, then this is definitely a way to feel more affirmed," they said.
Swokowski said she anticipates genuine implementation of the policy will take time.
"It requires alignment of values and perhaps requires some education and training. It's very similar to when 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was repealed at the end of 2010. The DOD (Department of Defense) indicated everyone in the department, both military and civilians, would be trained on the face that you can no longer discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation. By and large that training indicated that there was still bias in the systems. And I expect that to be there for the gender identity issue as well," Swokowski said.
She said at the end of the day if you can qualify and you can meet the standards you should be able to serve. And she said it brings her great joy to know the next generation will be able to do so authentically.
"I can tell you that after keeping my secret for more than 50 years and finally sharing it, I have no regrets. The last 14 or 15 years have been the happiest of my life," Swokowski said. "It just does my heart so much good to realize the vast majority of these folks coming out at younger ages are going to live the majority of their lives authentically, and that's a really good thing."