I’ll never forget the day the Common Council for the city of Beckley, W.Va., voted to amend our nondiscrimination ordinance to protect individuals from discrimination based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. It was heart-warming to see the freedom and dignity of all LGBTQ people affirmed in my home community. It’s made Beckley stronger and a brighter place to live, work, and visit.
As a transgender veteran, the passage of the ordinance felt especially fulfilling to me. I served my country proudly for 23 years, including three combat tours—two to Iraq and one to Afghanistan—earning three bronze stars for my service, in addition to other awards.
When I returned home, I was left vulnerable to discrimination in key areas of life. That’s because West Virginia is one of 29 states where LGBTQ people are not protected by either an explicit statewide law, or federal protections prohibiting discrimination in housing, healthcare, and public spaces like restaurants and stores.
I’m grateful to have protections in Beckley, but when I leave the city or visit a place where discrimination is allowed, I lose that security. It bothers me that I served my country, deployed to places where many people did not want to go, and yet I’m told in most of this country that I don’t deserve to be protected and guaranteed respect and dignity. As service members, we take the oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, and I believe that the Constitution includes and protects all of us; “We the People” means everyone.
I came out for the first time to anyone in 2010, but it wasn’t until years later, after I retired from the Army, that I came out more publicly. The government policy at the time denied open service to transgender people. The Army spent years and millions of dollars training me, and other transgender people, to protect our freedom and nation; yet we would be discharged if we tried to serve as our authentic selves. I cannot fathom why, in an all-volunteer military, we would turn away qualified people.
My experience in the military gave me a glimpse of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, and I’m glad that categorical employment discrimination is no longer government’s policy. Still, discrimination continues to happen. One of my friends who is transgender got a job after many rejections, but was quickly taunted by her employer and fellow employees using her pre-transition name, intentionally called the wrong pronouns, and generally creating a hostile work environment. A gay male couple in my neighborhood were one of the first same-sex couples to marry in West Virginia; but two weeks later one of the men was fired, supposedly for “performance issues” that had never surfaced prior to his marriage. I personally have been misgendered and harassed at a fast food restaurant nearby, the workers at which repeatedly ignored me when I corrected their use of “sir” and male pronouns.
It’s well past time that we address this, by taking action at the federal level. Right now, the Equality Act is pending in the U.S. Senate, having already passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support. We need our senators—including Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito—to come aboard and support the passage of comprehensive federal protections.
Our senators have the opportunity to make bipartisan history, to say, together, “We believe in equality in West Virginia.” With a spotlight on our state like never before, it’s up to our senators to illuminate the path forward, get to work, and ensure everyone has a chance to thrive.
It’s been a scary year to be transgender, as state after state passes demeaning anti-transgender laws. These bills send a pervasive, cruel message that transgender people are not welcome. It pains me to say that right now, I am the most guarded that I have ever been in the United States, nearly as guarded as I was while deployed for combat overseas. That’s a sad reality, and there’s really only one way to fix it.
We need to pass the Equality Act. We need to protect all LGBTQ Americans, including veterans like me. We need to live up to West Virginia’s state motto: “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”
Major Danielle Stewart lives in Beckley, W.Va. She currently serves as the chair of the city’s Human Rights Commission as well as on the board of directors of numerous nonprofits.
Danielle Stewart maybe reached at: [email protected]