Thursday, March 8, 2012

Transgender and Episcopal, in the Military

This piece, which came out yesterday in the Chapel Hill News, profiles Sam Taylor, a laywoman and former army chaplain's assistant.  I first met Sam when she was in the Micah Project, an Episcopal young adult program in the Boston area (now called Life Together-- which is now accepting applications for the 2012-2013 academic year), prior to her deployment to Iraq.  Stay tuned for the second part of this two-part story, and then follow Sam's own writing, which is to follow this two-part series of stories in the Chapel Hill News.

Home from the war, a woman
Sam Taylor had to keep her transgendered identity a secret while on duty in Iraq.

Sam Taylor now lives openly as a woman.


CHAPEL HILL - First of two partsSam Taylor wants to live "honestly and happily with the world" and, at 26, is just starting the journey to a career and family.
The Stanly County native joined the Army in 2003 to pay for college and, in 2007, completed a religious studies major and creative writing minor from UNC.
Two years later, Taylor left family in Chapel Hill for deployment in southern Iraq with the 34th Infantry Division.
The chaplain's assistant spent 11 months dodging rockets and toting an M-16 assault rifle to protect the chaplain, while advising soldiers and providing religious services.
Family, friends and newspaper readers at home kept up with Taylor through columns from Iraq, praying for a safe return and sending packages and correspondence.
From Basra - a city that saw some of the most intense fighting - Taylor wrote that the unit ministry team slept in a plywood hooch with a metal roof just yards from where three young soldiers were killed. Wooden crosses stood where they fell.
The team also helicoptered out for a week or two at a time to minister to soldiers in remote areas.
Taylor remembers one soldier who came in upset about an Armed Forces News story on a transgender woman. As the soldier sat crying, he said if there was any justice, "she-males" would be rounded up and killed, Taylor said.
"We had some very serious talks about how these probably weren't the people he was actually angry with, and I reminded him that we're all children of God," Taylor said. "He trusted me; he wanted to hear what I had to say ... (and) we got to talk about what was actually wrong."
No one knew how deeply that conversation touched Taylor - a closeted transgender woman.
Out - and back in again
The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates transgender individuals - people who are uncomfortable with their birth gender - make up 1 percent or less of the U.S. population. Transgendered identity does not indicate someone's sexual orientation.
A self-described "redneck" who shoots guns and talks basketball, Taylor says she always knew she wasn't a boy, but didn't want to risk coming out in a conservative community.
She first lived openly as a woman three months before going to Iraq, as the resident caretaker for a Boston rectory.
That came to an end when she was deployed to Iraq as a member of the Army National Guard.
Re-assuming a male identity was hard, but being openly transgender isn't an option in the military, Taylor said. You live a long time in close proximity to others, and every email or Facebook comment can be scrutinized. Daily attacks only add to the stress.
"Everything is exaggerated, and all the dials are turned (up)," Taylor said. "I was very nervous, and I was very, very worried about being outed in the Army."
A good soldier
The military has had gays and lesbians in its ranks for years, but it hasn't welcomed them with open arms.
Sgt. Jason Kalarchik, a former roommate, said some soldiers suspected Taylor was gay, but it wasn't their business.
"In the military, especially when you're deployed, if you think that about somebody, keep it to yourself," Kalarchik said. "The Army is really strict about it, and if anybody came into the office and said anything, they knew that I'd be on them."
It's unusual for sergeants and lower-ranked enlistees to bunk together, but "we got along really well," Kalarchik said. They're still good friends, although Kalarchik said he was surprised to learn last year that Taylor was a transgender woman.
"Sam kept it pretty close to the vest on the whole transgender issue," he said. "His personality was definitely different. He had some pretty liberal leanings when we had political discussions, and he spoke vehemently about gay rights."
Last month, Taylor told her Army chaplain, Kevin Winemiller, the truth. He was surprised and doesn't agree with the choice, but Winemiller said they will always be friends.
Winemiller said he isn't sure what response a transgender soldier would receive from other soldiers. But Taylor was a good soldier and chaplain's assistant, building a lending library, inventing games for the soldiers, and even earning the "high honor" of writing speeches for the colonel, he said.
"He was a great Bible teacher, he could run the chapel ... he could do the presentation of the Sacraments, he could do everything," Winemiller said.
Fitting the mold
One week after being discharged last spring, Taylor started injecting estrogen hormones into her thigh muscle in May 2010. Typically, hormones make breasts grow larger, reduce body hair, soften skin and move body fat to the hips, thighs and buttocks. Voice changes require surgery.
Taylor doesn't like to talk about her physical changes.
"I feel that, because there are so many stories and jokes and ideas about what happens to a trans woman's body ... and because that journey is often so visible to the outside world, non-trans people often feel that they are no longer bounded by standards of politeness when it comes to questions about a trans person's body," she said.
Her parents, Michael and Susan Taylor, said they stand in support of her.
"We are Sam Taylor's parents," they said via email. "We love Sam and are proud of Sam. A graduate of UNC, a veteran of the Iraq War and a devoted Christian, Sam is a fine person. We stand with Sam."
Taylor said being out has improved her relationships and her ministry.
"I can let people know there is forgiveness and love and grace for everyone, not just the folks who happen to fit into just the right mold of how somebody else thinks they should be," Taylor said.
In the fall, she became active as a layperson at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brookline, Mass. She is taking steps to someday become a priest.
Taylor has faced the stigma of being transgender a few times, although it's usually just a dirty look or a double take, she said. Once, three men surrounded her on a train, asking threatening questions. Taylor stayed calm and got off at the next stop.
Her focus now is on being honest with herself.
"Sadly life isn't simply one long trip to steal a dragon's treasure out from under some mountain," Taylor said. "There's no one scale to pain or worry, or to the joy that comes with knowing that it is possible to survive and thrive despite whatever the universe has thrown at me."

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