I am proud to have served my country. From an early age, I wanted to be part of the military. After high school I enlisted and served six years before receiving a scholarship from the Army to become an officer. I served my country for over 14 years before medically retiring as a major. Back in the days of my service, I was a lesbian and barely knew that the trans community existed.
I am now retired and living openly as a transgender man. Reflecting on everything that has brought me to this point in my life fills me with pride; however, it came with a lot of struggle. I live in a small town in Arkansas, and people who understand my struggles and triumphs are few and far between. I first found support, as so many of us do, through Facebook groups, from an organization called SPARTA.
When it was my time to leave the military, I welcomed the opportunity to be my true self. Out the door, I was already transitioning and looking for others with a similar story, but I could not find many resources for transgender veterans. I wanted to find others like me, who had served, to build a community where we could share our experiences and help one another.
I yearned for community and searched for it daily. Then one day, I came across the Transgender American Veterans Association. They are a grassroots organization advocating for transgender veterans and active duty comrades in pursuit of fair and equal treatment in health care and benefits. TAVA uses a combination of advocacy, outreach, and assistance to keep transgender veterans informed and connected. I had found my community. This is where I belonged. For me, though, it was more than just an opportunity to be a part of an organization. It was the first time I felt like I was part of a community that understood everything that made me the man I am today. It made me realize I wanted to be part of something where I could make a difference.
I took that feeling of empowerment, built relationships within the association, and am now honored to say that I am president of TAVA. Bringing together transgender veterans is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. However, I knew there was more I could do. There are plenty of other veterans struggling to find resources just as I was when I left the military.
Bringing transgender veterans together to talk about their struggles, answer their questions, and provide direction for their concerns is what I do more through the Transgender American Veterans Association Facebook Group, which I started and has now grown to over 300 members. I find that our Facebook community empowers our members to speak freely and encourages other veterans to share stories that help many get through their everyday lives. For many of the members, it is the only outlet to connect, find support, and get answers to critical questions. The group is their safe space and their military family that they have missed since leaving the service.
Veterans Day is a reminder to me and my military comrades that we go through some of the hardest challenges of our lives together, and we all are stronger for it. No matter who has cut us out of their lives, how many times we are misgendered, or what politician makes a personal vendetta against our brothers and sisters in arms, we have each other, and nothing can break the bond that we have together.
My goal with TAVA and our Facebook group is to enable connections within our community. I want every single transgender veteran to know that there are others out there who know what they are going through. From helping navigate the process of updating one's name on service records to guiding someone in the process of coming out to their family, we want to provide the support our community needs at every turn. After all, imagine how far a person can go with not one but 300 friends by their side.
EVAN YOUNG is president of the Transgender American Veterans Association.