Facts: Not all people who are transgender want to wear feather boas. Male service members don’t transition to women to have easier physical fitness tests. And you don’t have to understand or agree with someone to get along.
Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community dispelled these myths and described their coming out during a panel discussion held in honor of LGBT Pride Month at the McNamara Headquarters Complex June 20.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann grew up in the church in a conservative town in Missouri. He was ordained in 2003, then commissioned into the U.S. Navy in 2006. His first years were spent at sea, where loneliness and a lack of distractions like the internet forced him to deal with his “demon,” the reality that he was gay.
“I came to terms with being gay, then realized that ‘gay’ is a horrible term to describe me and ‘transgender’ was much better,” said Dremann, who is assigned to the Defense Logistics Agency’s Nuclear Enterprise Support Office. He made the announcement to his parents in a letter when the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was still being enforced.
“Then for some stupid reason I decided to send an email to all of my siblings, who then called my parents before the letter got there,” he said. Three months passed before his mom and dad spoke to him again. Three years passed before they were willing to use his chosen name, Blake, and his siblings still don’t talk to him except at Christmas.
Marie Popiolek, a Defense Threat Reduction Agency employee and former Marine, was 6 years old when she was sent to the principal’s office for describing what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I said I wanted to be a mommy and have three kids. I was quickly told, ‘You cannot be a mommy.’ Turns out, I never was a mommy,” she said. “I’m a dad to two kids. They still call me ‘Dad,’ and that’s what I’ll always be to them, but I’m also a grandmother to two grandchildren.”
Loved ones had long since concluded that Popiolek felt more like a woman than a man when she made the big announcement.
“Most people that were close to me knew from the get-go,” she said. Her friends stood by her after hearing the news; many of them said, “Oh that explains a lot.”
Jill Raney realized she was bisexual in college in 2004 when LGBT rights dominated the presidential election. She came out for the first time during a meeting with fellow students.
“A lot of us were processing real fear about what the future was going to look like. I was just so angry that I talked about what that was going to mean for people like me, and I hadn’t said anything out loud in that way before,” said Raney, founder and CEO of Practice Makes Progress, which works toward building a more just society online and in the workplace.
It took about nine years for Raney’s parents to accept her bisexuality. She hasn’t told them that she now goes by the term non-binary, a gender identity that doesn’t fall into the category of male or female.
Choosing to embrace themselves as transgender or non-binary has enabled Dremann, Raney and Popiolek to live their lives authentically even though it’s brought rejection and discrimination. Popiolek said she was considered a model employee until coming out.
“But the minute I told them I was transgender I suddenly became average,” she said. When her performance evaluations suffered, management blamed it on a new rating system. Her struggle for tolerance and equality has been harsh.
“There were times when I just wanted to take that long dirt nap. It’s been tough. But I think the tide is finally turning. Now we’ve got people in place who are understanding,” she said.
Dremann and Raney have countered discrimination by advocating for others. Teaching people to be kind is a main focus of Raney’s work at Practice Makes Progress.
“People experience their lives in a whole lot of different ways. I might not necessarily understand it, but I can just accept that they are who they say they are and not make a big deal about it. That’s the most important thing that I’d like to get out there,” she said.
Dremann helped lead policy changes to the ban on transgender service members and runs a national advocacy organization known as SPART*A, or Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All. Though he consciously draws a line between his advocacy activities and his work as an officer in the Navy Supply Corps, he’s open to conversation about the personal choices he’s made and the repercussions, especially when talking with senior leaders.
“Ask whatever questions you need to ask. Don’t feel like you need to not offend me or worry about overstepping your lines,” he said, adding that it’s more appropriate for a senior officer to ask him than a young enlisted sailor.
Panel members agreed that mutual respect is key to equality, and putting people in boxes with labels like “gay” ignores the reality that people experience gender in different ways.
“Gender is a spectrum,” Popiolek said. “When I was growing up we had tomboys and sissies. As time goes on, we keep getting more and more boxes. Eventually we need to realize life is so much better when we’re not living in a box.”