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OutServe Magazine | November 28, 2014

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Navy Couple Recounts Tough Decisions

Navy Couple Recounts Tough Decisions
Brynn Tannehill

Morgan Wade’s Transition and Reenlistment

Reserve recruiters dream of people like Morgan Wade walking into their office. She had a sterling service record, was on the fast track to chief petty officer, and qualified in a field where the demand for skilled individuals is high. Top it off with a clear background check and a clean bill of health, and it should be easy, right?

Morgan WadeThe problem: Morgan Wade is female now, but that is not what was on her original birth certificate. It wasn’t what was in her records when she joined the Navy. Even before she joined the Navy, though, Morgan was already dealing with gender dysphoria. She treated it as something chronic but manageable.

“The first time I figured out I had body image issues was actually before I joined the Navy, though at that point I didn’t know what it was or meant,” she said. “I just tried to ignore it. At that moment in my life, I didn’t know what I could do other than just try to deal with it the way I always had.”

Joining the Navy

Morgan’s father, Mark, saw someone looking for a calling and not just a job. “Diving is Morgan’s passion,” he said. “She was not happy at Chico College and spent her summer vacation on our sofa just watching TV. When we told her to go out and get a job, she went to military recruiters and decided on the Navy… Morgan found the dive program and pushed for that.”

Morgan saw a great opportunity: “I wanted money for school and needed some time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”

When it came to her dysphoria, she counted on her newfound endurance. There were hard times early in her Navy career, but those hardships also reinforced her confidence in her own abilities. “At my first command, I was treated so badly, and hazing was such a regular thing that I sort of figured that if I could survive that, I could deal with my own personal issues.”

Despite the hardships, she loved her job. “When I was diving, nothing else in the world mattered. It didn’t matter how bad things were topside. As long as I got to be in the water it was a good day.”

She was stationed on the USS Safeguard, a salvage ship based in Sasebo, Japan. “Being that it was a small ship, and the cruise was an independent steamer, I got to go to a lot of small ports that the rest of the Navy doesn’t normally go. I loved the travel on that ship.”

Unfortunately, during the time on board the USS Safeguard, Morgan’s dysphoria began to catch up with her. “I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be able to deal with my gender issues indefinitely. I did, however, make the decision to make it to the end of my contract.”

Falling in Love

Morgan Wade, Former Navy Diver

After returning from Japan, Morgan met her future spouse. Katie described meeting Morgan: “We met online on a singles/friends website. We seemed to have a lot of common interests, but I think above all we were both thirsty for friendship on a deep level, and Morgan seemed lonely.”

The online, friends-first nature of the relationship led Morgan to believe they were unlikely to meet. With no expectation of romance, she opened up about her dysphoria. “I told her online, so she knew that much about me from the very start. I didn’t really know her at the time, there wasn’t the same sense of risk that I got with coming out to friends and family.”

This marked the first time Morgan had come out to anyone. She was rewarded with Katie’s unconditional support. “It was more or less a non-issue to her.”

Morgan moved to Washington, a few hours from Katie. “We had talked online for a little while, and Morgan said she was bored one weekend,” Katie said. “I invited her out to hang with me and my friends at a nightclub. Morgan hopped a ferry and came right over, and within five minutes of us being in each other’s presence, we felt very comfortable, as if we had known each other our entire lives. Morgan ended up staying for the entire weekend, and we ended up falling in love.”

Dysphoria Takes Hold

Katie could see how the dysphoria affected Morgan. “She tried very hard to be optimistic, but she was incredibly lonely. Ultimately, the Morgan I met was sort of locked in place by her choice of desperately trying not to reveal her true self at work or to those around her.”

They married in February, 2007. Katie went in knowing Morgan would finish out her time in the service, then transition. “It was a fun time, as we were in our honeymoon phase.” Still, Morgan sometimes talked of trying to tough it out to retirement, Katie said. “She kept fighting with herself saying that if she just stuck it out, she could retire. But I could see how damaging it was for her to have to be a man every day… She had come to terms with the idea that she could finally be herself at some point.”

Increasingly, Morgan struggled at work. “Toward the end of her ten-year career, she started to feel overwhelmed,” Katie said. “She had to put up with misogynistic jokes in the dive locker and jokes about her ‘putting on weight’ when she was on estrogen. Morgan hated the male part of herself and hated changing in front of other people. She had to face that daily as a diver.”

Still, it wasn’t always bad, and the solace that diving offered was what tempted Morgan to stick it out to retirement. “Some of her best days were when she got to dive and see neat things along with doing her job. She feels most at peace underwater, so at least the Navy offered that,” Katie said.

Morgan’s burden also weighed heavily on Katie as time went by. “I was the first person she openly told in person that she was trans. I was the person she spent almost every day with up until her Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS), and I can say that it is a very heavy weight to carry. Where trust goes, there follows a huge amount of responsibility.”

Taking the Leap

Katie was convinced Morgan could not continue with the Navy or to even live as a male. “She had to pursue herself in a much more dedicated, in-depth way than she was able to do in the Navy.”

Morgan finally began getting help and taking positive steps towards dealing with her dysphoria. She sought psychological and medical services outside the Navy medical system, and in the process risked the consequences of violating UCMJ Article 92 and an administrative discharge.

Morgan also took the step of getting a prescription for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). It was easier than might be expected. “I got a recommendation from my therapist for a doctor out in town, and he prescribed them for me. I actually brought him my military medical records. He even charged me less because I made his job so much easier.”

She began HRT six months before she left the Navy, and the positive effects were noticeable. The changes helped her feel at peace, happier, and easier to communicate with. The depression lifted.

“I understood completely and put everything I had worked for over the last two years on hold to cope with transition,” said Katie, who paused her efforts in nursing school to support her family. “I was prepared to be the bread winner. We were scared of how hard it would hit us financially. She was so sad to not get to dive almost every day. I’m very disappointed she never got to make chief, because she was a shoo-in.”

Despite the necessity of leaving the Navy, it was still hard for both of them. Katie described it as a grieving process. “The Navy gave her a sense of pride, accomplishment and identity. Being a Navy diver was a very large part of who she is. Diving is something that gave her the confidence that only a job you’ve done for 10 years at the top of the pack can do. Leaving the Navy was almost like mourning the loss of a friend.”

Morgan left the Navy in 2010. She gave up a $45,000 selective reenlistment bonus, a promotion to chief petty officer, and the diving she loved.

Transition

About three months before leaving the Navy, Morgan came out to the rest of her family. Her brother just thought she was gay. “My mom sat me down with the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and tried to convince me I was just depressed,” she said. “Now, I think she’s accepted that I’ve done the right thing, even if she doesn’t really understand it.”

The news surprised her father. “Sara and I were shocked when Morgan told us. I wondered what I had or hadn’t done during Mo’s upbringing to cause it. We are still having problems with pronouns.” Both of her parents tried to dissuade her from leaving the Navy. “We were not happy with her decision. She had ten years invested in a career field that she loved. She was so good at what she did.”

Yet, over time, Mark made a discovery about his newfound daughter. “I have realized, no matter what the outer wrapper is, Morgan is still Morgan after transition.”

When the opportunity to live as a woman finally came, she did not waste any time. “I went full time while I was on terminal leave. That was less than a month after my last day at work. I figured I was already going through so much change, what’s a little more?”

She used her educational benefits to go to culinary school. “Morgan has always been a creative, mad scientist in the kitchen,” said Katie.

At the same time, Morgan went to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) for access to psychological services and continued access to HRT. The VA benefits were a blessing, given the financial difficulties they were having. “We went from making very good money to us being afraid every day that some service was going to be disconnected since we couldn’t pay the bill,” Katie said.

The process of transitioning wasn’t easy on Katie either. “It has been an emotional roller coaster. I was so glad she was finally finding herself, and I think that is what the transition is all about. It has been a humbling journey, but it almost broke us right before her GRS. I felt like I had a big responsibility, and I tried my best not to let her down.”

After a clean bill of health from the VA, Morgan and Katie scraped up enough money to pay for GRS. By December 2011, her transition was complete. In every legal sense of the word, Morgan was female, and her body and soul were finally aligned.

The effects were profound. “She has grown into a woman with so much strength and courage, who is more outgoing, who is more self-possessed and feels more at peace with herself than I have ever seen her,” wrote Katie. The therapists with the VA agreed. They concluded she no longer had any reason to see them since her dysphoria was gone, she wasn’t depressed, and she was well adapted to her new life.

Trying to Re-enlist

With her life back together, Morgan wanted to try to re-enlist in the Navy. “I decided to try to get back in once DADT [Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] was repealed. I knew I would have to get a waiver, but figured I could prove that I was more fit to serve now than I was when I got out.”

That recruiter she found was Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Campbell of Navy Recruiting Station Everett, Washington. Where others saw a hopeless cause, he saw an opportunity for continued service. “It is my job to help transition prior-service personnel into the Navy Reserve. Ms. Wade was no exception. I will do my best and continue to help every veteran re-affiliate that I can,” Petty Officer Campbell said. It didn’t hurt that Morgan was up front with the situation from the beginning. “Ms. Wade was very honest, sincere, and overall a pleasant person to speak with.”

Morgan went through exam after exam to prove she was mentally and physically fit to serve. “It seemed like every time I gave them one piece of paper, they would ask for two more. Eventually, they accepted the doctors at the VA examining me and clearing me.” In the end, all of the doctors, psychologists, surgeons, psychiatrists and therapists declared her fit to serve. The package she submitted was almost 150 pages long and documented her exemplary prior service and current fitness.

When her application was denied without explanation in August of this year, Morgan wanted to know why, so she asked for help from her congressman, Rep. Jim McDermott. His office pressed the Navy for answers and received one several weeks later:

“Standards preclude from acceptance those individuals with contagious or infectious disease who would be likely to endanger the health of other personnel; those who are likely to require repeated admissions to sick list, prolonged hospitalization, or invalidating from service; or those who present any condition that would be likely to form a basis of a claim for physical retirement benefits. The standards, therefore, are intended to define a degree of physical fitness in applicants that best meets the Navy’s needs and yet incur an acceptable minimum risk of liability in regard to health hazards, repeated or prolonged medical care or hospitalization, assignment problems, and eventual pension or retirement benefits … To authorize Ms. Wade’s enlistment in the Navy would expose her to increased risk or injury.”

None of the reasons given by the Navy made any sense to Morgan or her family. Gender dysphoria isn’t a communicable disease, she doesn’t need more medical care than any other woman, and the law specifically prohibits treatment of dysphoria as the basis for retirement benefits. The diving community is open to both men and women, so there was no reason to believe that her gender would lead to unacceptable risk of injury.

“The rejection notice was ridiculous,” said Katie. “I actually ended up laughing for a good five minutes at it.”

Her father was similarly unimpressed with the Navy’s explanation. “We heard her congressman sent a letter explaining the reason she wasn’t allowed back was because she was no longer capable of performing the duties of the job. I have no idea where that came from, and I am angry with whomever was involved with that decision.”

When Morgan heard the waiver was denied, she simply felt sad. After receiving the explanation, her frustration simmered over. “Now I’m more frustrated and mad. Every doctor that has seen me says there is no physical reason why I shouldn’t be able to serve. Every therapist and psychiatrist that has seen me says that I am healthy and well adjusted.” For Morgan, it begged the question of why she needed doctors and psychiatrists to examine her examinations if the Navy wouldn’t follow their recommendations anyway?

Life Goes On

Yet, life goes on for Morgan and Katie. Budgets are still tight; they still have to finish getting Katie through school. Morgan’s family is still adapting to her transition. Still, they can’t help feel that Morgan and the Navy would both be better off together.

“They spent a lot of money to train her, and she proved herself amazingly and boundlessly worthy of that investment. She gave 150 percent of herself to her job,” Katie said. “It seemed like a no-brainer that she would be an even better diver now that she has nothing to hide.”

Despite rejection, Morgan remains optimistic that someday she will be able to reenlist. “I’m hoping that the new [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association] and the changes regarding gender dysphoria will make it easier to argue that I am healthy and able to serve. I want to finish my career. I loved the job, serving my country and the community. It hurts to be denied that opportunity.”