- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - Alexandra Marberry, 23, is one of at least 17 Naval Academy graduates who have come out as transgender, but she may be one of the first to serve her entire career openly.

Over a year ago, her position as a naval officer and her identity as a trans woman could not co-exist.

The Department of Defense still prohibits transgender military service in its physical and psychological standards. But since last July military separations related to trangenderism have been effectively halted as the department considers the policy implications of open trans service. Now, department officials said they plan to announce repeal of the ban soon.

Marberry is now among an estimated 15,500 transgender soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors in the U.S. military who are waiting for permission to serve openly.

For now, this spares Marberry the choice many before her have faced: to hide their gender identity or walk away from their military career.

These are the stories of the Naval Academy graduates who came before her.

Marberry may get to pursue the career Paula Neira had to give up.

Like Marberry, the 53-year-old Naval Academy graduate was an aspiring naval aviator and always struggled with her gender identity. Born male, she said she felt female.

But she hid her feelings for decades because of her love for the Navy, she said.

“The minute I said something, I’d be discharged,” said Neira, who was a lieutenant.

When she graduated from the academy in 1985, Neira’s eyesight didn’t meet requirements for aviation, so she became a surface warfare officer for five years.

By the time she was a lieutenant, her eyesight had improved and she qualified for flight school. She went to Pensacola, Florida, to pursue her dream, but the disconnect with her gender remained.

“I realized flying F14s and being Maverick (from the movie “Top Gun”) was not going to solve this issue,” Neira said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to not address this another 14 years to get to a 20-year career (to be eligible for retirement).”

She told her superiors she had a kidney stone, a “face-saving way of not continuing on with my flight training.”

Neira entered the reserves to finish her obligated service with hopes of soon addressing her gender identity.

Ninety days later, Kuwait was invaded. Her identity again had to wait as she left for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

“I’m a Naval Academy grad. There’s a real world situation going on. I have this training that is directly applicable. My place is with the fleet. So I put my personal stuff, again, on hold.”

After serving the Persian Gulf, Neira returned home and actively pursued her gender transition.

“I couldn’t run away anymore,” the Bowie resident said.

Two months later, she said the military called and asked her to return to active duty. She cried for a week. Then she said no.

“My heart was breaking because I was put in the position of choosing between being who I was, being able to live authentically, and serving my country,” she said. “In the United States we should never ask people who volunteer to sacrifice for our well-being to make a decision like that.”

Neira became a trauma nurse, an attorney and an LGBT advocate.

She said that if a policy on transgender service is put in place, there is a slim chance she could become an Air Force nurse.

But she said that if she were able to stay, she would never have left the Navy.

“The clock ran out for me.”

Robyn Walters is likely the oldest living transgender Naval Academy graduate.

But the 79-year-old retired commander didn’t pursue a male-to-female gender transition until she was in her 60s, just a few years after she admitted to herself that she was transgender.

Walters said she knew she was different since age 9, when she went into her mother’s closet and tried on a dress. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed it, but the shock of nearly being caught was enough reason for her to repress the feeling.

“My 9-year-old self panicked,” she said. “That just buried it so far down that that kind of thought didn’t come back for quite a while.”

While at the all-male Naval Academy in the late 1950s, Walters felt awkward.

“I tried to be as macho as I could. It didn’t work very well,” she said. “I never felt comfortable as a man.”

Walters maintained a lingerie stash for decades, starting in her teens. But she didn’t dare bring delicates to the academy’s Yard.

“If I had been caught with something like that, I would’ve been standing outside the gate with a train ticket home, no question about it,” she said.

On holiday breaks, she returned to her female side.

Sometimes when she tried on an item from her stash, she felt shame. She said there were times when she asked herself: “What the hell is wrong with you, Walters? Why do you do this?”

“And you feel like that until the next time,” she said.

Walters didn’t admit to herself that she wanted to be a woman until she was 57, when her four children were grown. That was after graduating third in the Class of 1960, two marriages and an over-20-year career with the Navy that included work with the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Adm. Hyman Rickover.

She told her second wife about her feelings after her youngest daughter left for college, and it ended the marriage.

“There may have been something in my subconscious saying ‘Keep it down, buster. Keep it down until your girls are out of the house,” she said.

Walters sometimes wonders what could have been if she had been able to serve openly.

“I’ve asked myself, ‘Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if I’d transitioned back then? And the answer I come up with is yeah, it would have been wonderful. But there are four children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren who never would’ve been born. So what can I say?”

Walters said that after hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery in her mid-60s, she feels right in her body. She said she no longer worries how people perceive her in a women’s restroom.

“One of the most wonderful feelings was the first day I woke up and didn’t have to shave (my face),” she said.

Her third marriage, to transgender author Emery Walters, is her last, she said. Sixteen years ago, they visited Maui for their honeymoon and have been there since.

She said that after so many years of burying her feelings, acknowledging her truth hit her “like a two-by-four.”

“And I never looked back.”

___

Information from: The Capital, http://www.capitalgazette.com/

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