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Profiles in Patriotism


By Denny Meyer

Erin Russ, a transgender American, was a US Army Infantry Captain who served honorably for 9 years from 1981 to 1990. The Russ family in which Erin was raised was archetypal, normal Americana. The family was involved in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and church; her father had served as a sergeant in the Korean War, a brother was in the Air Force, a nephew is a Marine, and four cousins, both grandfathers and all three uncles served their country proudly. Her father, a mechanical engineer, taught his children to think for themselves, to find out for themselves why things are the way they are and how to achieve results. That proved to be the sort of cognitive quality desired by the Army for a modern military officer.

Growing up, Erin was always aware of being different from the expectations of others. As a boy, she knew that she was supposed to 'belong' to one group, and that there was no choice in the matter, and yet, she knew that expectation was wrong as it applied to her; she knew she was the wrong gender. As any LGBT American child growing up in the 1950s and 60s instinctively realized, Erin simply knew that a boy does not tell anyone that "he" is a girl. As Erin put it, "I had a lot of fun as a kid in the Boy Scouts; its just that I wanted to be a girl." She occasionally cross dressed in high school and college, when it was possible to do so. At the same time, she dreamed of being a fighter pilot; not an unreasonable possibility as in the 1970s America's first female U2 jet pilots and astronauts were heroically deflating gender role stereotypes. Erin later opted for the Army on discovering that the planes did not come in size XL

Yet, despite the Sturm und Drang of dealing with that alone while growing up, without any advice nor solace from anyone, the strength of her family and rearing allowed Erin to become a self-confident self-sufficient intelligent young adult who had all the qualifications and qualities to be among the best, an US Army Infantry officer.

In 1978, Erin Russ was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army National Guard. You might ask, "What was she thinking? How could a transgender person imagine serving as a leader in our military?" It was not as simple as the fact that in reality, to be a leader, it simply does not matter if one is male or female, nor does it matter what one chooses to wear when out of uniform. There was also the societal pressure to conform, to meet the expectations of others, to try to force oneself into the "right" role. Erin was already militarily inclined; in fulfilling that dream role, she'd hoped it might resolve the gender disparity within by "making a man" out of her. It would have been most ideal to be able to serve as a woman; but at the time that option was not available, nor is it quite yet today in this country.

As an Army Infantry officer, Erin served ably as a paratrooper, an infantry platoon leader, scout platoon leader, company commander, logistics officer, assistant brigade ops officer, and as an infantry division air ops officer (in Alaska responsible for all army aircraft flying below 500 feet --working with a multi-million-dollar budget). She served at Ft. Hood, Ft. Benning, Ft. Wainright in Alaska, and traveled to Europe and Japan in support of joint military exercises. She was respected as a thorough trainer and leader of troops in the field, and as a student of military history, wrote papers on international terrorism, accurately predicting current trends and for oversight detail analysis that averted munitions supply errors that could have resulted in the Army's European mission's failure. Captain Russ also collaborated on the production of one of the Armyís counter insurgency manuals in the mid 1980ís, lending one of her college papers to the project.

Fully qualified as a parachutist, as an expert with rifle; pistol; light, medium and heavy machine gun; grenade launchers; tow missile; and dragon missiles, Erin was twice cited for decisive action during joint military training exercises and awarded the Army Achievement Medal in the field.

All that came to an abrupt end one cold night in Fairbanks Alaska as she happened to be observed averting an auto accident by sliding through an intersection as the traffic light was changing from yellow to red.

The police officer noticed the discrepancy between the elegant dress she was wearing and the male army officer identity on her driver's license. That was all it took for lifetime career as a brilliant army officer to come to an end. On the following Monday morning Captain Russ was called into the Brigade Commander's office where she was shown a letter from the police to the Provost Marshall.

Once again, expectations provided no choice; either she would be court-martialed or she could resign, simply being accepted and understood was not an option. The charge, an irrelevant detail of the devastation of all her hopes and dreams, was "Conduct Unbecoming Of An Officer."

Never mind that this patriotic highly motivated, brilliant officer's attention to detail had twice saved the Army from embarrassment and mission failure; she was out so fast that the numbness of loss had hardly begun to sink in.

In today's days of the war on terrorism, personnel discharged as unfit for military service due to homosexuality are able to immediately be hired as civilian contractors at four times their military pay to do exactly what they had done in the armed forces, often in the same unit in which they had served. Transgender former service members, however, are not yet accorded the same status of respect for their skills; Recently, a "male" retired Special Ops LTC was hired by the Library of Congress as a Counter Terrorism expert/researcher and then fired before starting work simply because of her plans to transition. This is all the more reason why the rights of transgender Americans should remain included in the Employment Non Discrimination Act, currently in Congress.

In the 1990s for Erin Russ, there were only jobs well below her level of qualification, depression, and lost potential. And yet, with the memory of her father's rearing, unstinting support from family and relatives, and a decade of reflection, Erin Russ came to fully accept for herself who she was and to begin to achieve her potential as a leader.

The loss now belongs only to the US Army.

-With thanks to Erin Russ for her story, as well as for her kind assistance and guidance in writing this article.

©  2007  Gay Military Signal