By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com November 12 2013 4:06 AM ET
Jennifer Natalya Pritzker doesn’t do anything half-heartedly. In her 50s, she once camped in a tent on a lake in Antarctica battling 110 mile-per-hour winds to conduct scientific research. She’s given $25 million to her alma mater, Norwich College in Vermont, the birth- place of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program — that’s enough to pay full tuition, room, board, and expenses for half of the student body for a year. A scion of one of America’s wealthiest families (they own the Hyatt hotel chain), Pritzker is known for her work restoring historical buildings across Chicago down to their precise, nuanced details. Her meticulous pas- sion for military history led her to open a 40,000-volume military library in Chicago using her personal collection of books and records.
Now Pritzker (born James in 1950) is securing her own spot in history. Earlier this year, the 63-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel (11 years in active duty and 16 years in the National Guard), anonymously donated $1.35 million to the Palm Center, an LGBT-focused research organization based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The donation led to the July launch of a comprehensive, long-term project to study transgender integration in the military. A few weeks later, Tawani Foundation employees received a memo notifying them that their boss was to be known as female from that moment on.
“This change will reflect the beliefs of her true identity that she has held privately and will now share publicly,” the memo read. “Pritzker now identifies herself as a woman for all business and personal undertakings.”
Though it may have surprised the world at large, Pritzker has been slowly easing into her identity over the last several years. She has been known to attend public functions wearing female-presenting garments like headbands, nail polish, earrings, and sometimes dresses, according to the Chicago Tribune. At other times, Pritzker would attend in male-presenting formal military garb.
Eventually, Crain’s Chicago Business put the pieces together and realized that Pritzker was the Palm Center’s anonymous benefactor. Her donation will fund 11 independent studies by 16 scholars on how the U.S. Armed Forces could integrate openly transgender service members.
“Militaries around the world are updating their policies, and we are already conducting research in Canada, Britain, and Australia to learn whether their trans-inclusive regulations have impacted readiness,” said Indra Lusero, the project’s director at the Center.
The data from this research could influence legislation to welcome openly transgender troops in the U.S. military. But after the study’s conclusion, Pritzker may have to exert her influence again, via her consistent support to Republican politicians. Over the years, Pritzker has primarily supported conservative causes, like the National Rifle Association, and Republican politicians, including Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Illinois figures like comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, pundit and presidential candidate Alan Keyes, and Rep. Aaron Schock. If Pritzker’s record of committing meticulously to completion is any indicator, her wish for a transgender-inclusive military may not be too far off.