I knew command was supposed to change you, I just didn’t expect it to be this much.
The pictures are two years and a lifetime of experiences apart.
Here are five lessons learned along the way:
1) Authenticity Is Powerful
Opening up about who I am as a transgender person created the space for trust. Not the kind of trust that comes from knowing the person next to you will accomplish the mission, but the kind of trust where people put their faith in you to help them through difficult times. More than once, I was told some variation of “If I didn’t know your story, I wouldn’t be sharing this…”
Vulnerability as a leadership trait is a relatively new concept, particularly in the military, but it rings true for me. Through my wife, I learned I had a bit of a Captain America image for much of my career. People thought I did things the right way, but was perceived as arrogant or unapproachable. Coming out was the crack in my shield that let other people in and my empathy out.
In the years between coming out and my transition I didn’t hide what could be seen as my vulnerability, but I wasn’t actively broadcasting it beyond those who needed to know. However, as an outspoken advocate who’d done a lot of press and looked quite different on duty than off, I was very ‘Googleable’. Everyone going into command should expect that your people will look you up. I could have avoided addressing my vulnerability, but acknowledging my challenges allowed others to see that I could be open to theirs.
Removing barriers to authenticity should increase service member retention, but I guarantee it enhances performance. Living as my authentic self improved my job performance in subtle and obvious ways. Prior to coming out, there was a filter in my brain processing every thought before it could become a word or an action. It may have been only a split-second delay that prevented me from talking about what I did on the weekend, but it was there, and it was strong. It was the same filter that LGB service members had to deal with under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell when talking about their relationships. We all had a fear that the most innocent of slip-ups could cost a career for something that had nothing to do with our ability to serve. Being open meant the mental energy previously reserved for conforming, even if it was to a perceived expectation, or hiding an identity, could now be dedicated to the mission.
Following a Supreme Court ruling allowing implementation, a policy was implemented in March of 2019 stating that anyone who did not have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria within the next month would not be allowed to transition. That led to a lot of introspection; I’d always fought the diagnosis because it had a condition stating you had to exhibit “clinically significant distress.” I hated that concept, as I was neither sick nor broken, but I had to get it if I was to be myself. In that month, I had to attend a dinner at the Bolling AFB O-Club with Generals and senior officials from other government agencies. As I put on my sport coat and looked in the mirror, I said “This isn’t right.” Within days, after challenging discussions with my wife, I talked to my doctor about receiving a diagnosis.
My filter is now completely gone. Living as my authentic self is critically important to me, but it’s also made a world of difference to those around me.
2) I Opened My Eyes
When I came out as transgender I worked in the Pentagon and was often invited to meetings with senior leadership because of my position. I began to notice the composition in each room; it was heavily white and male. Almost subconsciously, I started counting women and minorities in the meetings and thought about how intimidating that may be for many of them, particularly if they’re the only one. I’ve since discovered that ‘reading the room’ is a fairly common tactic for women and minorities and some will even adjust their strategy based on it. It wouldn’t be the last thing I noticed.
I always considered myself aware of challenges faced by minorities, to the extent that someone raised in a lily-white, upper-middle-class suburb could be, but becoming a visible member of a minority group in my late 30’s opened blinders I didn’t even realize were there.
I always considered myself aware of challenges faced by minorities, to the extent that someone raised in a lily-white, upper-middle-class suburb could be, but becoming a visible member of a minority group in my late 30’s opened blinders I didn’t even realize were there. I began to see barriers for others where I never would have imagined them before. I worked hard to educate myself, by listening to my friends and colleagues of color and by reading rather than scrolling past stories and links I might otherwise have skipped in the past. I learned how the attitude of ‘not seeing color’ (or ‘only seeing blue’ as has been said in the Air Force) can be perceived negatively, not the positive that so many seem to believe. I now know “I don’t see color” is akin to saying “I don’t see the real you, your lived experiences, or your perspective.” It shuts down sharing what we might need to hear and understand.
Most importantly, I took to heart just how much I didn’t know and opened myself to learning and listening more.
3) Ability Hides in Diverse Minds
In his commencement speech to the graduates of the National Defense University on June 11, 2020 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said “We all need to do better. For example, although the United States military has a higher proportion of African Americans serving in our ranks than in society at large, only 7% of our flag and general officers are African American. The Navy and Marine Corps have no African Americans serving above the 2-star level, and the Army has just one African American 4-star.” [Author’s note: The US Census Bureau estimates that African Americans are 13.4% of US population in 2019]
If the United States is to fight and win future wars, it will be done with brainpower. If those brains happen to be inside a transgender body we need to actively recruit and retain them. Turning away an individual who might be the innovative spark we need to revolutionize the way we fight in new domains would be disastrous. It deprives us of the future leaders that CJCS pointed out are missing. If the services don’t seem like an attractive option, or worse, actively push away LGBTQ individuals, people of color, women, and other minorities through harassment, discrimination, or a mismatch between stated values and the culture of the services, we are hurting our capability and readiness.
Seeking and nurturing the abilities and strengths gained through diversity is a job for leaders. We must create and enforce a culture that promotes the dignity of every individual. At my first team meeting after taking command, I discussed my 3Ds: Diversity, Development, and Delight. I wanted everyone to know how much I valued them regardless of their background, that I would make time to help them develop, and that I was going to do my best to make sure we all enjoyed it along the way. Leaders who embrace diversity lay the foundation for a 4th D: Dividends for the nation.
4) The Pressure Is Intense
As recently as 2008, less than 1 in 12 Americans said they knew a trans person, by 2015 (just before open service was allowed in the military) it was only up to 1 in 6. Ask a trans person how many times they’ve heard “Oh, you’re the first transgender person I’ve ever met, treated, or worked with” and you’ll probably hear “More than I can count.” Being the first ‘anything’ someone meets is both a blessing and a curse; whatever you do, for good or ill, can be seen as a reflection of your whole minority group. Trans people are portrayed as negative stereotypes in popular culture (villains in movies) and some have formed opinions that military trans people are traitors (how they might see Chelsea Manning) or that we’ll be hormonal disasters and will rage or weep over our gender identity when the bullets are flying. Being the first transgender person someone meets is an opportunity to confirm or destroy those stereotypes.
A year after coming out I moved to a position in Air Force International Affairs and worked for a Colonel on his final assignment. When I met him, I explained my situation and he responded that I was the first trans person he’d ever met, but he expected me to take care of what I needed to do. At his retirement 10 months later, he told me that I broke his stereotype of what a trans person was simply by coming to work and doing my job every day. I shudder to think what his stereotype had been, but I was glad he gave me the opportunity to change it.
Being the first also means trans people must be educators and serve as their own best advocates. In many cases the patient must teach the doctor that they aren’t fragile and the Airman must teach the Commander how to navigate policy. It’s not a comfortable position for people in a military culture where we expect to look up and receive wise counsel from our seniors. (Need a transition?)
Command is often described as living in a fishbowl where your every action is watched and analyzed. Add the stress of being the first or only minority in the role and it’s like being the ant on a sunny day and everyone around you is a kid with a magnifying glass. This describes the concept of minority stress, which “distinguish(es) the excess stress to which individuals from stigmatized social categories are exposed as a result of their social, often a minority, position.” This stress, particularly when it comes directly from the president tweeting that transgender people are a burden and disruption to the military and should not serve, combined with the desire to set a positive example, leads many trans people to hold themselves to an even higher standard than what’s expected, which in turn reinforces the stress. Some don’t make it, or choose not to face it, but surviving that pressure forges impressive character.
5) I’m a Better Leader Now
Two years of command brought many challenges, but the most difficult items to deal with were the people-centric issues. Suicide, sexual harassment and retaliation, hostile work environments, inappropriate relationships, and officer misconduct are just a few of the things I’ve learned far more about than I ever imagined. As an engineer, I studied root cause analysis methods that figure out exactly why and how problems occur, but it’s much harder to pull the why out of a person than the how out of a machine. However, everything I learned from my experience as a trans person made me a better listener, grew my empathy, and pushed me to evaluate the situation beneath the surface. For example, my organization held discussions on race and racism less than a week after George Floyd was killed, well before most of the force as guidance to do so started to trickle down from senior leaders. Our discussion led to people of color sharing revelatory information which enabled me to help them; something that might not have happened without previously building trust through the skills I learned.
This is not to say I didn’t make mistakes, I made a lot of them! But without the lessons of being trans, I might have made more of them and I might not even have made it to a command position. A week after I came out as transgender, my organization at the Pentagon got a new two-star general. On his second day, I talked to him for an hour and a half about transgender service issues. I had never spent more than 5-10 minutes alone with a general and they were miserable ‘career counseling’ experiences. This was different; he listened more than he talked. As a pilot, he related his experiences from the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era where everyone in the squadron knew who was gay, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the person flying on your wing knew the mission and was capable of executing it.
A week later I got a call from him asking if I wanted to be his executive officer. It was a chance to see the Air Force from a different perspective and to learn from someone I deeply respected. I was probably the first person in the Armed Forces to be offered a job because I was transgender instead of being fired for it. Not only did I learn so much, but as a Major being considered for promotion and command, having a general officer as my direct supervisor gave me an advantage I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Being trans also gave me an opportunity to develop my leadership skills outside of my duty, but still within the military community. In 2014 I joined SPART*A, an organization that educates and advocates on behalf of trans service members while also providing peer support. Within SPART*A I got to see the struggles trans service members faced across the military and how they were often amplified if the person wasn’t white or an officer. In almost every assignment I’ve been in prior to command, I’d been near the bottom of the org chart and had directly supervised only one person for one year, but within SPART*A I was suddenly the senior Air Force officer and building leadership skills that ensured we took care of people and accomplished our mission.
As I look back at command, I see things I wish I had done differently, some of which still keep me up at night, but I also see success and the shared joy that comes with a job well done. I learned that it wasn’t my own success that drove me, it was watching my folks win two ‘Team of the Year” awards, getting others promoted, and hearing “thank you for listening.” Without the skills I learned along the way, I don’t know if that would have been possible or if I could have supported others in the way I’ve been supported.
Ultimately, my story isn’t about what we accomplished. It’s about grabbing an opportunity and turning what could have been a liability into professional strengths. Today, I’m grateful I admitted that the person wearing the sports coat in my mirror could be better, that the mirror now reflects the real me, and that I was able to make the journey with my Air Force family.
Lt. Col. Bree B. Fram is on her way to the Naval War College in Newport, RI. She recently completed a command assignment as Materiel Leader, Cyberspace Integration and Transition at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome New York.