MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --
A 9-year-old boy stands in front of the mirror looking at his outfit for the day. His mom comes behind him smiling and comments on what a handsome young man he is becoming. He looks at his mom with sad eyes and replies “I should have been a girl.” Taken aback, his mom smiles and says “Don’t be silly, go play with your trucks.”
This is the reality people living with gender dysphoria face; feeling they are in the wrong body, and their internal feelings don’t match their outward appearance.
“We’re not crossdressers, drag queens, or transvestites,” said retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Laura Perry, 45th Medical Operations Squadron master social worker. “There’s nothing wrong with those people. That’s just not us. In my case, I was a female stuck in a male’s body and that’s important to understand. I’m not just deciding that I like girl’s clothes or that I like to wear makeup. The choice that [transgender people] make is whether to transition or not. We don’t choose to feel like we’re trapped in the wrong body.”
Laura grew up as Leonard in the late 1950s and 1960s, a time when some of the first transgender people to undergo sex reassignment surgery made headlines. With no formal diagnosis for the medical condition, people who had it were often considered insane and committed to asylums.
“When I was growing up we didn’t have a name for it,” Perry added. “I just tried to blend in as best as I could, and tried to act like a boy even if I didn't feel like one. But [gender dysphoria] is a medical condition. They’ve tried therapies and other treatments for it, but none of that has really worked. What they’ve found is transitioning to the identified gender is the only treatment that has consistently solved the dysphoria.”
Before this discovery, the negative stigma surrounding gender dysphoria led many people to commit suicide or ignore their internal war and live a ‘normal’ life. Perry did the latter, but found herself fascinated by women and longed to be in their world.
This enthrallment ultimately led to her first marriage, where Perry tried to make her wife into the woman she wanted to be.
“I was attracted to women, but what was more important to me than any of the sexual stuff was just to be around females,” said Perry. “I just loved being in a woman’s world and ultimately I got married to have access to that on a regular basis.”
Perry filled the void in her identity with the pride and honor she felt wearing the Air Force uniform, but as hard as she tried to ignore it, throughout her marriage and military service Perry still felt like something was missing.
“I was an Air Force officer first, a social worker second and there was no third,” said Perry. “I never had to think past being an Air Force social worker. I loved being in uniform because it defined me and gave me a way to identify who I was for those 20 years. It allowed me to tuck away the questions I had about my gender because that replaced it.”
Once the time came for Perry to retire, anxiety set in. The questions she’d ignored were resurfacing as she realized she’d never wear the uniform again. This internal battle would continue for another decade before she began gender counseling in 2011.
“Some information was available back then, via internet, but you had to go looking for it,” said Perry. “In recent years, the transgender issue has been in mainstream media because of shows like, ‘Orange is the New Black,’ and people like Caitlyn Jenner. It is now being openly debated on social media.
“Consequently, younger people are now learning the language to talk about what feelings they’re having and parents are more likely to realize this is a real thing that should be addressed,” Perry added. “That wasn't the case when I began my transition, during my military service, let alone during my childhood and I think it makes a huge difference.”
On June 30, 2016, transgender service members were granted permission to openly serve in the military and on Oct. 1, 2016, military services announced that it will provide gender transition medical care to service members.
As part of Moody’s Diversity Day, LGBT Pride month was celebrated and Perry spoke about her journey as a transgender veteran and what the opportunity to openly serve has given military members in this community.
“Being transgender doesn’t make us any less human,” said Perry. “In the military we have been serving forever, we were just closeted like gays and lesbians had to be. We’ve been serving, have served well and we’re going to serve even better now because we get to serve openly and be ourselves.”
Being able to be your true self without fear of discrimination or reprisal is important in the military, civilian sector and interpersonal relationships.
“She’s in a much better place,” said Terry Farino, Perry’s fiancé. “I know her story and there’s a lot of people from her past who have and haven’t accepted it. But after all the years and things that she’s been through, she’s living a life she’s comfortable with.
“I’m blessed to have her in my life,” Farino added. “Sometimes when we go out she feels uncomfortable or that people will notice that she’s Trans, but when I look at her, I see a woman.”
Farino has seen Perry’s presentation and is learning about the issues and hardships the transgender community faces. Perry hopes people came with an open-mind and will continue the discussion after Diversity Day is done, no matter their point of view.
“The goal of my presentation is to keep people talking about what they think about transgender people,” said Perry. “Even if they have an opposing view, just by talking about it they’re going to hear the opposite view and it might help them see the other side.”