PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.)
When Laura Perry first entered her office dressed as a woman, it was a colossal step in her yearslong quest for self-identity. It was time to show the world her true self.
“I came to work a different person,” said Perry, a 60-year-old transgender civilian Airman who works as a social worker at Patrick Air Force Base’s mental health clinic. “I wasn’t anxious about it. It was more of a thrill.”
Before that April 2012 decision, Laura was Leonard, a retired Air Force major with a wife and two daughters. But something was always missing from her life.
“Emotionally, I needed to have it done,” Perry said of the gender reassignment surgery she got two years later. “There hasn’t been a day when I’ve doubted myself since then.”
But the transition to womanhood resulted in a divorce, the worst part along Perry’s journey.
“That was a huge, huge loss and I’ll always love her,” Perry said recently during an interview from her office. “I’ll always feel horrible that she got caught up in that with no fault of her own. She didn’t sign on for this.”
Serving in silence
In 1983, Perry joined the Air Force and would go on to serve 20 years. While deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1996, Perry was part of a mental health team that helped survivors of the Khobar Towers, a building housing Airmen that terrorists bombed, killing 19 people and injuring almost 500 others.
“That was my most rewarding assignment,” she said of helping others. “It was very real. You could see the rubble from the building.”
While Perry remained confident in her work as an Air Force officer, she struggled with her male body.
“In active duty, I was wearing women’s underwear with my uniform for several years before I retired,” she said. “Occasionally, I even wore stockings.
“It’s a part of who you are,” she added. “It wasn’t anything about the uniform; I was just trying to find a sense of peace.”
The military has recently evolved as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement continues to gain ground.
In June, Defense Secretary Ash Carter added sexual orientation to the list of non-discrimination categories that also includes race, religion, sex, and age. With this change, gay service members can now file an equal opportunity complaint if they feel they’re being discriminated against; however, it does not specifically address discrimination against transgender persons.
A month later, Carter raised the discharge authority of involuntary separation for transgender military members to the Defense Department level.
“Transgender men and women in uniform have been there with us, even as they often had to serve in silence alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” Carter said in his announcement. “The Defense Department's current regulations regarding transgender service members are outdated and are causing uncertainty that distracts commanders from our core missions.”
The defense secretary also commissioned a working group in July to conduct a six-month review of the implications of transgender persons openly serving in the military. Results have not yet been released.
“At my direction,” Carter said, “the working group will start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified.”
Transgender federal workers are already protected from discrimination by the Civil Service Reform Act.
If transgender military members will be able to serve openly, Perry stressed that educational outreach will be needed.
“Our Air Force is going to have to adjust to very visible overnight changes in peoples’ appearances,” she said. “I can tell you from experience when you first start going down this road that being misgendered is like a knife in the heart. We’re so fragile at the beginning (of transition).”
Perry considers herself lucky for caring co-workers and friends in the Air Force while she changed her sex.
“I have enough friends in the civilian world who I’ve seen struggle going through professional and personal transition. I almost felt guilty because it was so easy for me,” she said of the support she received from Airmen.
Her openness also convinced those in the military’s family advocacy community to ask her to speak at conferences and share how she faced her challenges.
“People have been amazingly supportive and attentive, coming up to me with questions afterward. Nobody was throwing anything, so that was good,” she joked.
One of her supervisors, Capt. Fei Zhang, the clinic’s director of psychological health, has been impressed by how Perry has handled such a bold transformation.
“I couldn’t imagine having to go through what she did,” Zhang said. “Being that confident and having that much conviction in what she knew felt right, to take that step, I think, speaks volumes for her strength as a person.”
Perry, who volunteers as a military outreach coordinator with the Palm Center, a nonprofit transgender advocacy group, now hopes she can help others in similar situations find that confidence.
She understands that lives are on the line -- an estimated 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide, compared to 1.6 percent in the general population, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
“If being yourself and being accepted in the world is the goal, then always keep your eye on the prize,” she said.
But don’t be discouraged, she said, when things don’t go perfectly.
“Would I prefer to be born with a female body? Absolutely. But I’d rather be female this way than male,” she said. “This is as good as it gets for me.”