First ever trans woman in the US Army infantry explains why she won’t criticise Trump
Patricia King was the very first trans woman to serve in the US Army infantry. This was a unique time because the armed forces were just allowing women to serve in combat jobs such as the infantry.
To that end, she was one of the first women ever to be in the United States Army in a combat role. Here, she discusses her relationship with her gender, her job, her children and her president.
Four Nine: Having had the realisation that you didn't feel like you were male while serving, what prompted this?
"I have had those kinds of feelings since I was about eight years old but I always shoved them to the back of my mind and the older I got, the more I came to a place of acceptance and realised that I needed to be authentic to myself.
"I think that while I was on my most recent deployment to Afghanistan was when, in those quiet moments, I had the most opportunity for reflection and to really think about whether I wanted to continue to repress these feelings that I was having or whether it's something that I wanted to really come to terms with and be OK with.
"So my time here in the military, actually, was a blessing in terms of being able to address that. Not because of the job I do. Because I think we have to remember that my gender identity is female. And, of course, there are female elements of gender expression that I prefer.
"Hearing that any person who leads an organisation doesn't believe in members of that organisation, for any reason, can be challenging"
"My favourite colour is purple and I love to sew. I've loved to sew since before I came out. But I've been in a combat job for 20 years now - in a male-dominated environment - so it would be disingenuous to pretend that I don't enjoy my job simply because I am living an authentic life as a woman.
"Whether transgender or cisgender, there are women that may really enjoy aspects of the job that I do. I get to run around in the woods, when I'm training - when I'm not in a combat environment. I get to play army. I get to shoot guns at the rifle range which, to say that simply because I've transitioned over I don't enjoy, would be just as disingenuous as not embracing my gender."
Four Nine: Did you feel you have an appropriate support system within the army?
"Initially, I didn't feel that the support system was appropriate and I need to quantify that. My leaders, the people who I reported to directly, were amazing. They embraced who I was. They didn't necessarily understand it because this was new to them but they knew me as a soldier. They knew the quality of my work and they wanted to be supportive.
"When I first came out in 2015, the military didn't allow transgender people - much like they're trying to go back to now. So while my leaders - on a personal level - supported their soldier, from a policy standpoint, they could not. There was no policy in place. There was no framework in place to allow me to have an authentic life simply because, here in America, the military hadn't moved that far into the right place yet."
Four Nine: How does it feel to know that your president doesn't accept you for who you are?
"I'm going to answer your question but before I do, I have to quantify that, of course, in the military, we have certain rules that prohibit us from speaking negatively towards our military leaders or elected leaders.
"As a person who has served in the military for nearly two decades now - and has done so for the last four years living an authentic life as a trans woman - I feel personally that what we've seen time and time again across countless transgender service members is that there's no detriment to the military because trans people serve.
"This amazing little child was not sad for the person who I was. They were sad that I had waited such a long time to live an authentic life"
"There's no question that morale and cohesion are not negatively affected. If anything, just like any group of people, any cross-segment of a country - trans people, people of colour, gay people, people of various religions - bring individual talents, individual backgrounds and attributes to the military that enhance the good for everybody.
"Hearing that any person who leads an organisation doesn't believe in members of that organisation, for any reason, can be challenging. But I would choose to believe that it’s due to a lack of education and a lack of understanding."
Four Nine: Would you say that you found there's a higher proportion of people in the military who support Trump and his policies?
"In my experience - for the last 20 years of doing this job - I find that more often than not, serving members of the military tend to be more conservative or more Republican-leaning. That's certainly not true of every member of the military and political party and affiliation don't necessarily need to come into it.
"We in the military are always supportive of our Commander-in-Chief because they are the leader of our country and it's what we do. In terms of policies, I personally am happy with any leader who wants to support members of the military be they transgender, cisgender - it doesn't really matter. If you are a leader in an organisation and you believe in and support the people in that organisation and give them the tools they need to be successful, that's really all that anybody serving cares about."
Four Nine: You attended the State of the Union address earlier this year. What were your motivations for being there?
"I wanted to give representation to a segment of the population that otherwise may not be represented in that room. The State of the Union serves to fulfil a constitutional requirement. It’s the president briefing Congress and the entire country about where the country is and where it's headed. As such, the State of the Union - through the guests and attendees - has the chance to be represented by all members of that union.
"So I wanted the opportunity to be the person in that room that represented the transgender community and the transgender military community because, as the president serves this country, we're part of it. Whether you are a person who has immigrated to this country from somewhere else, whether you are a member of the LGBT community or whether you are a member of a less represented religious organisation.
"I have several sisters within the infantry who have made that decision to transition"
"You're a part of this melting pot that we call America and the president represents all of us when he gets up and gives that State of the Union address. So I wanted to be there as part of this particular group of people."
Four Nine: Whose reactions surprised you the most after transitioning, be them positive or negative?
"The most rewarding reactions were, first and foremost, of my parents. I knew since I was a child that I had feelings that my gender identity didn't align with my body. But I felt first that I didn't have the words and then scared to share this with the people who have loved me since I was me.
"So to be in my thirties and finally embrace who I was and to tell them and have them tell me 'we love you'? That was the most rewarding and powerful thing. It was like a lightning rod that gave me the strength to move forward with my transition.
"The next people that I told were my children and one of my kids actually had a very sad and sombre look on his face and I was nervous, understandably. So I said '“Honey what's wrong?' and he told me that he was sad that I had waited so long. This amazing little child was not sad for the person who I was. They were sad that I had waited such a long time to live an authentic life. Of course, as a child, the transition of a parent or family member is something that is met with any number of feelings but that support from my kids, that genuine love that was not based on my gender but just on a relationship, was really really amazing."
Four Nine: Has the army been a more transphobic environment than you've experienced elsewhere?
"No. We are lucky in the military that we have not only the camaraderie of our peers but also a pretty rigid system that gives us the dos and don'ts. If we come across the military and we say 'our policy is that we support transgender people and more importantly our policy is that we represent equal opportunity and we don't discriminate against any peer group', people in the military are pretty quick to get on board with that.
"Just like anything else, we say 'Roger' and we move on. Outside of the military, I have found much more discrimination. I've found much more intolerance particularly, of course, as a person who is fairly public about their transition.
I receive emails and messages via social media that can be downright unpleasant. People feel very brave behind the keys of a computer and that's been challenging. I've met discrimination and transphobia out in the world. Really, again, that strength that I've had is from people supporting me and some of those people are my peers in the military.
"My dad is incredibly supportive of me. He is fully embracing of the daughter he has"
It's empowered me to rise above a lot of that and say 'You know what? Those people who don't know me and don't understand? Their opinions pale in comparison to those who love me and support me.'"
Four Nine: You were the first openly transgender person in the US Army infantry. So have others followed in your footsteps?
"Yes absolutely. I've always joked that the great thing about being a pioneer is that you don't have to be best, you just have to be first. And there have been several others in the infantry and other combat-related jobs and, truthfully, across the Department of Defense across the United States military on the whole.
"I have several sisters within the infantry who have made that decision to transition and some cisgender women, since the infantry is open to women. So just a great, amazing group of women who are all kind of venturing into these uncharted waters of a male-dominated environment. It's been so rewarding to see."
Four Nine: Do you know of other trans people in the armed forces who are afraid to come out, still?
"I do. Again, being somewhat public about my transition has made me easy to find and just this morning, I had a woman reach out to me via social media who said “I think I'm finally ready to come out to my command. Can you give me some tips and pointers for making that transition in the military as smooth as possible?”
"There are any number of people who have been afraid to come out maybe because of the way it might affect their family or for fear of losing their job or due to transphobia that they've experienced. Maybe people who are not in as positive a command climate who have friends and peers that have heard about me and have been critical of me. And so these men and women have been afraid to come out because they've heard how their loved ones and peers have spoken about others. There are definitely those who are not ready to make that decision yet. And I always encourage them to find a support group and people to talk to."
Four Nine: Prior to your transition, did you notice that people in the public eye coming out caused jokes amongst peers in the military?
"Some. Absolutely. When Caitlyn Jenner first came out, there were jokes across social media, there were jokes across military circles. You would be hard pressed to go to see a comedian that didn't have a Caitlyn Jenner joke somewhere in their repertoire. It was everywhere. We were inundated with it.
"That's what we do when we don't understand things. We oftentimes desensitise ourselves with humour. So yeah I experienced it personally through my work environment and things like that.
"My dad is incredibly supportive of me. He is fully embracing of the daughter he has. But he told me a story about sharing with his friends that his daughter had transitioned. He wasn't sure how everybody else was going to react and he said that when he was telling his golf buddies, they didn't really understand the term. So he said 'well she's gone Cait Jenner'.
"So he actually used that to explain my transition so they were able to understand it. So it was everywhere at the time and you know Cait and I transitioned at roughly the same time so, of course, that was something that I was going to see a lot of.
"Bringing these issues to the forefront, and the people in the public eye using their platform as an opportunity to shed light on things that we might not have thought about otherwise, absolutely is huge in moving progressive issues forward. Here in America, we have had a full third of Fortune 500 businesses have come out publicly and say that they support transgender inclusively in their workplace and that they are supportive of governments that do the same. Money talks. And so to have businesses out there that say 'hey, we're Coca-Cola we believe in supporting our trans employees and we want to work in states where they do the same'? I think it matters."
Four Nine: Your colleagues call you Sergeant King which, of course, is gender neutral. So to what extent do you think language poses a barrier to those transitioning?
"Accepting a person's pronouns is one of the first ways that you can make an impression on them. It's one of the first ways that you can show them that you are accepting of who they are. or at least respectful of how they identify.
"As we went through it, we came into a situation where we had become friends again and we are amazing co-parents"
"That language - those pronouns that we use - they are vital. People in my workplace do refer to me as Sergeant King but they also use ‘he’ and ‘she’ when they're referring to people. And for me, the pronoun that people use is she ‘her’ and I can't imagine going to work every day and having people insist on using the wrong pronoun for me. It's happened, not my workplace, but out there. It's happened that people insist the wrong pronoun for me and I identify those people as folks that maybe I wouldn't choose to spend as much time with or whose opinions maybe I know that I'm going to devalue in some way because of the way that they devalue me."
Four Nine: How easy was it for your children to adopt the new language around your female identity?
"It was challenging at first, partly because I'm a divorcee and my ex and I went through our own period of turbulence. It wasn't a smooth process. There was pain and anger and heartache and it was my responsibility to be respectful of that - of that process.
"As we went through it, we came into a situation where we had become friends again and we are amazing co-parents and I am so appreciative of her and part of that process was being respectful of her feelings and of my kids’ feelings so I didn't I want to be 'Dad' anymore and that is a personal choice for everybody.
"Cait Jenner still uses the term ‘Dad’ and uses it as a sign of endearment. It’s not that her children don’t accept her gender. But, for her family, that was the choice that they made. For me, we wanted to find a term that was understanding of the female gender but didn’t diminish their other mother’s role as ‘Mum’. So the term that we used that many other trans women use is ‘Maddy’. It was just another term that references a female parent, that gives a distinction between their other mother and myself. They use she/her pronouns for me and refer to me lovingly as their Maddy and things have been great."
Whatever stereotypes of trans people that society has begun to form, Patricia King proves that gender identity is a far more complex issue than many people would care to admit. Regardless, living her "authentic life" is every bit as important as serving her country. So let's hope she continues to be allowed to do both.
You can take action by signing the American Civil Liberties Union petition to stop President Trump's proposed ban on transgender military service