They loved their country. They felt military service was an honorable career. They were transgender.

They enlisted and soon realized how difficult and even dangerous it could be.

All three Maine transgender veterans who agreed to talk to the Sun Journal last week remain proud of their service despite the difficulties. All three also said former President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender individuals in the service made the challenges worse, and are hopeful about President Joe Biden’s reversal of that ban last week.

Here are their stories.

Kelly Taylor, 67, served in the U.S. Coast Guard as a petty officer second class from 1974 to 1978. Her specialty was photojournalism. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

KELLY TAYLOR: U.S. COAST GUARD

“One day, I was standing outside, smoking a cigarette, thinking about the fact that I was going to die soon, by my own hand,” Kelly Taylor recalled. “It’s 6 o’clock in the morning, it’s snowing, the wind’s blowing, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do with however many hours or days I have left?’ It hit me, I was finally going to live as me.”

Within a month, she was living as a woman full time. She attended therapy sessions at the Veterans Administration in a skirt and heels. She says she was not rushing decisions, but going through the transition process one step at a time.

Taylor knew she was transgender when she was 4 years old but did not have the language for it.

“In the 1950s, there wasn’t a word for it. You couldn’t go to the encyclopedia and look up transgender, there was nothing in there,” said Taylor.

Following in the footsteps of her brigadier general grandfather and her U.S. Navy father, Taylor joined the U.S. Coast Guard when she was 20 years old.

Despite knowing she was “different,” Taylor spent her time in the military completely closeted.

“It wasn’t safe. You would get thrown out with a dishonorable discharge, you would lose your benefits, lose everything,” Taylor said.

She lived that way in her post-military life, too. “I dated women, I got married a couple of times. At times I would experiment with being female. A couple of the people I dated or was married to found out and things would turn seriously ugly instantly.”

After a workplace accident left her injured, without income, and living with undiagnosed major depression, Taylor struggled to get back to work. She ran out of money and moved into the back of a parked box truck. She remained homeless for three years and eventually sought help at the VA hospital in Augusta.

In 2014, Taylor was admitted to the inpatient psychiatric ward at Togus VA Medical Center. When she was released, because she was a suicide risk, she was required to live in the veterans homeless shelter in Augusta.

“I was struggling with staying alive, I wasn’t happy with my life. I was still pretending to be a cis(gendered) white guy,” Taylor said. It was at this homeless shelter, on the verge of killing herself, that Taylor decided to live as a woman.

“Once I started HRT, hormone (replacement) therapy, within a couple of months, I felt right. I felt safe.”

Since transitioning, Taylor has begun doing advocacy work in the state for transgender vets. She has presented talks at events throughout New England, led trainings, and has been approached to sit on numerous boards.

Togus officials had asked her to serve on an LGBT Veterans Care Committee for VA Maine Healthcare before Trump sent out a directive stopping diversity training across the federal government. That stopped the Togus effort in its tracks.

When Biden signed an executive order last week repealing the ban on transgender people serving in the military, it was a massive relief for Taylor.

“I was sitting up on the hill where I live. It was a dark, overcast day, but the minute he changed that policy, it was like the sun came out,” Taylor said. “My mood for the day was better. It was this gladdening of the heart, this sense of safety.

“When Trump took that away, it created this great fear, this uncertainty, this anxiety, but Biden gave it all back.”

Holly Fortin served in the Marine Corps from 1981 to 1992, finishing as a staff sergeant. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

HOLLY FORTIN: MARINE CORPS

By the time she and her wife were stationed by the Marines in Hawaii, Holly Fortin was ready to live authentically. When the couple was scheduled to move back to Maine, her wife flew home ahead of time, and Fortin saw her chance.

“I had it all planned out. As soon as that airplane took off, I was gonna become Holly,” she said.

The first time that she ventured into public dressed as a woman, she went for a stroll late one night in an open-air mall by Waikiki.

“It was so refreshing to finally feel, for few minutes, like myself, like who I was supposed to be.”

She came across a group of men who began catcalling at her. “One of them says, ‘Hey, baby, how about a kiss?’” She was frightened and went back to her car as quickly as she could.

But she continued to exist as herself in Hawaii. “Those six months between my wife leaving the island and when I left the island myself, I spent as much time as Holly as I possibly could,” she said.

Fortin says one of her earliest memories was knowing that she was female when she was around 5 years old.

When she was in junior high, she would put on a denim skirt, put her hair back into a ponytail, put on earrings, and do her newspaper route at 3 in the morning, so she could exist in the world as herself for a brief period of time.

Later, she kept a stash of clothing outside in a weatherproof bag to avoid discovery by her family. “I would just put on that stuff and wander through the woods.”

When Fortin joined the Marines, she was unable to live as herself at first. During A School training in Florida, where Fortin learned Morse code and basic signals collection for her job, the quarters were too close. Likewise with her assignment in Alaska. It wasn’t until she lived in Hawaii that she began to take small steps to live as herself.

After 11 years in the Marines, she was approaching a scheduled background check for her top-secret clearance in her job in signals intelligence. Some of her fellow servicemen had noticed that she had begun to shave her legs and arms. Despite loving her job she opted to leave the service.

“I thought that there was too much of me starting to come out. I chose to take the door before they could show me the door,” Fortin said.

When Trump announced the ban on transgender people serving in the military, Fortin was upset. “With the sweep of the pen, he could dash so many servicemen and -women’s hopes of continuing to serve and still being their authentic selves.”

Fortin’s concerns about the Trump administration ban on transgender people serving in the military prevented her from taking a job as a human rights investigator for the Maine Human Rights Commission.

She’d had a long career in child support enforcement, and had been looking for a change. Fortin said the commission was thrilled to be interviewing a transgender candidate.

“I could see it sifting down through the federal government,” Fortin said. “Becoming a federal employee would have been risky, so I decided not to pursue that job opportunity.”

Fortin was thrilled when Biden announced that the ban was being lifted. “I was happy for the transgender servicemen and -women currently in the service. Happy they could continue to serve, without fear, after finally coming to an acceptance of who they are.

“And I’m happy for those who aren’t in the service, are transgender, and would love to serve our country, that they don’t have to feel that this is a disqualifying factor for them.”

She does have concerns for transgender men and women in the service continuing to face an inhospitable culture.

“It shows tremendous courage,” Fortin said. “I’m sure that they’ll be able to overcome those barriers that they will still face within the service.”

Danielle Twomey, 63, served in the Air Force from 1975 to 1980, completing service as a buck sergeant. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

DANIELLE TWOMEY: AIR FORCE

Danielle Twomey knew she was transgender when she was 6 years old.

“While I was in the service, I was wearing my sister’s clothes in secret, which I had been doing since I was 11 years old. I was living multiple lives. I had a high-level security clearance working for NORAD,” Twomey said. “Those things would have cost me a security clearance. I felt like I lived in a spy novel. It was incredibly risky” to be openly gay or transgender in the military.

One of Twomey’s friends told her that her roommate was under investigation for being gay.

Recognizing the danger an investigation like this might present to her, Twomey immediately requested a transfer. “Then I went home and got engaged to a girl I had dated in high school, to take the heat off me,” Twomey said. She was transferred to the Arctic.

She learned that her former roommate was kicked out of the military along with a group of other men suspected of being gay.

But Twomey was spared. “I was engaged, and I was hyper-alpha-masculine.”

Twomey grew up during the Vietnam War, and looked forward to joining the military while she was in junior high school. She enlisted when she was in high school.

“I was one of the last generations to get draft notices for Vietnam, but it was irrelevant. I was going in the military,” said Twomey. “I believe in honor and country. It’s still one of the most important experiences of my life.”

She made it through her time in the service as a closeted bisexual man, without being detected. “I was honorably discharged. And I had an outstanding record,” Twomey said.

She was devastated when Trump banned transgender people from serving in the military.

“Prior to the Trump administration, we had made breakthroughs. It felt like we were being accepted as human beings,” Twomey said.

“You put everything you had on the line to come out,” Twomey said. “The risks we face are intense. And then to have it overthrown while you’re there? It’s immoral. I don’t know how to condemn it in any stronger terms.”

Twomey says in her circle of “senior Maine trans elders” almost 40% are veterans. She feels like the military is a good environment to work on transgender acceptance in society, due to the culture of following rules.

While she was relieved to hear President Biden is lifting the ban, Twomey still has reservations.

“I want to say that I’m excited. I’m not. It’s the right thing to do,” Twomey said. “But the water is poison right now. It’s a battle I thought we’d won. We’re still fighting.”


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