PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Sheri Swokowski is optimistic that conditions are improving for transgender people serving in the U.S. military.

The retired U.S. Army colonel — considered the highest-ranking, openly transgender veteran in the country — attributes the push within the past decade to open the military to transgender personnel to growing social acceptance and visibility, and she says the military is better for it.

“Frankly, when the weight of being transgender is lifted off a transgender service member’s shoulder, they are a much better service member,” Swokowski said. “People that work with them on a day-to-day basis are well aware of their capabilities and their character.”

Transgender people, or those whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth, are allowed to openly serve in the military, but the country is only a few years from a decadeslong, fractious history of discrimination and compelled silence.

Swokowski discussed her experiences during a lecture Wednesday at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, an event attended by about 15 people.

In North America, gender-nonconforming people have covertly served in the military from at least the era of the Thirteen Colonies. Roughly two centuries later, transgender people were officially banned, a policy that persisted until 2016.

The military planned to allow the enlistment of transgender recruits in 2017, but that year former President Donald Trump announced his intent to resurrect parts of the ban. It took effect in 2019, only to be reversed by the Biden administration this year.

The Williams Institute, based at UCLA, estimated in 2014 that 15,500 transgender people served on active duty or were in the Guard or Reserves.

Swokowski was assigned male when she was born in 1950 in Manitowoc, Wis. She lived outwardly as a man, but that gender did not reflect her identity.

“I knew I wasn’t exhibiting characteristics expected of a boy, so I deeply repressed my inner feelings for years,” Swokowski said.

She enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1970, inspired by her father’s military service during World War II.

“There is nothing like being the leader of a light infantry company to make a transwoman compartmentalize her feelings even more,” Swokowski said.

After retiring in 2006, she started a new job teaching at the U.S. Army Force Management School and began to transition. The following year, Swokowski underwent gender reassignment surgery.

Upon her return to work, she was told that her superiors had hired her “replacement.” That is when Swokowski decided to devote her life to combating discrimination against LGBT people.

Conditions have improved, she said, but trans people struggle to obtain gender-affirming health care and reassignment surgery through their medical benefits.

College sophomore Isabelle Emerson attended Wednesday’s event at the recommendation of her professor.

“I have a couple of trans friends and I feel like it’s important to understand these kinds of topics and the variety of things trans people face,” she said.

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