Deployed While Trans: The Rachel Bolyard Story
Rachel Bolyard looks pretty much like most of the other contractors who have spent most of the past decade living and working in the CENTCOM AOR. She’s prior military, having spent seven years in the Army from 1988 through 1995 working on mission systems for the RC-12 Guardrail aircraft, both as a technician and an operator in the Army. She served at a variety locations during that time, and left the Army as part of the post Cold War draw down.
Afterwards, she was picked up immediately to continue working with airborne surveillance aircraft and helicopters as a contractor out of Fort Hood, Texas. As a contractor, she continued to work with military intelligence gear through three years in Korea, and tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of this may sound particularly unusual. Tens of thousands of military contractors have served in theater alongside the military, filling specialized and highly technical roles for more than a decade.
Except for one key detail: Rachel is transgender. She began transition in theater, and finished during her rotation out of the AOR. Then she went back into theater post transition without missing a beat. For the better part of a decade, Rachel has been “in the field” working on some of America’s most important intelligence assets, and doing it as a trans woman.
Rachel had struggled with her gender identity for years, and it came to a head in 2006 after a motorcycle accident forced her to reassess her priorities in life. She made a commitment to transition and volunteered to go back into theater to help save up for the costs of transition. From 2007 through 2010 she worked in Iraq on FLIR and electro-optical sensors, and started preparations for transition in earnest. “I found a therapist online who would do Skype sessions. I went back on HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) in mid 2009, and scheduled Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS) for the following year.”
Rachel took two months off in early 2010 for FFS, and notified her Human Resources (HR) department about her intention to transition. After she returned from FFS to Afghanistan, she informed her co-workers of her intent to transition in late 2010. Their reactions were mixed, and some of the blame for these mixed reactions possibly falls on her company. Her HR had no Equal Opportunity (EO) policy in place protecting gender identity, and no policy concerning how to handle an employee transitioning.
“Some of my co-workers have been extremely supportive, and others have been openly hostile… Even two years later, it is still known to me that some of them (the hostile ones) are telling newcomers about my past. I’ve been in contact with my HR to let them know that it is time to let the past be the past.”
In early 2011 Rachel took a three month leave of absence to have Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS). After her surgery she had to be in-processed again via the Army’s Individual Replacement Deployment Operations (IRDO) program. While there, she was treated essentially like every other woman in the program. “While I am deployed now, I use the female latrines and showers, and my roommates are women.”
I asked her if her roommates in theater knew about her past. Unfortunately, some people have made it their business to try and influence her roommates’ opinions of her. “Because I am still with the same group of people that I was with during transition, they still feel it is OK to talk about it without my permission… I have asked them repeatedly to allow me to introduce myself and be myself without that label and in time, I will or won’t talk about it. So far, at this site, I am still being outed to newcomers without consent though”
Still, I asked, what about your roommates? Did they have any issues? Rachel’s answer was emphatic and to the point, “No. They have been very understanding.”
I also asked about her interactions with military people, and not just the contractors. How did they handle her being trans? Were they professional in their dealings with her? “The military folks generally aren’t any the wiser, unless one of the co-workers decides to reveal my past to them. If they (the military people) do know, they do a better job of hiding it than some of my co-workers. The military side actually seems to be more disciplined or doesn’t care. It’s kind of weird. You would think that the civilian side would be more understanding, but it hasn’t been my experience.”
When asked about where the issues are coming from, it wasn’t hard for her to pinpoint: “It is just a minority of people who make life more difficult than needed… Some of my co-workers are extremely transphobic, and see me as a pariah that needs to be excluded or sent home.” Ironically, she works at an international base, where she has met transgender service members from Canada and England.
Medically, being transgender in theater hasn’t been a significant factor. Every three months she gets a check up and a re-fill on her prescriptions. They’re stable even at high temperatures like the ones encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and she keeps a 2 month “back up” supply in case her access to her normal re-fills is interrupted for some reason.
In spite of the ups and downs, she’s where she wants to be. “I really like my job, love aircraft, so I don’t want to leave… I really want to fly again as an aircrew member like when I was in the service, but it was only last year that women were allowed onboard to be operators.”
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from Rachel’s experiences. A strong chain of command that demands professional, respectful conduct has a strong positive impact on the workplace climate and culture. She demonstrates that transgender people have been successfully working in theater for years. It also shows that the biggest impediment to transgender people serving isn’t medical or their ability to do their jobs. The issue is the same people, who for personal reasons, would prefer to see integrating LGB people into the military fails.
Many of the same arguments raised against ending DADT are being used to perpetuate the discriminatory policies against transgender service members. Highly capable and dedicated transgender DoD civilians and contractors like Rachel show that transgender people are willing and able to be a part of the military and its missions. The only thing holding them back is the same sort of fear and prejudice that kept lesbian and gay people from serving openly.
It begs the question, though: If those people shouldn’t have a say in LGB people serving openly, why should they have a say in transgender peoples’ ability to serve?