Transgender trailblazer makes military mark

Swokowski is voice for the transgender community
Transgender trailblazer makes military mark
Photo by Sharon Varnorny

She sat four seats from the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense that day. Maybe he noticed what she was wearing, maybe he didn’t. In any case, the wall was weakening.

“I was the first woman to legitimately wear an infantry uniform anywhere,” Sheri Swokowski says, “and I chose to do it at the Pentagon.”

It was June 9, 2015. The event was the annual Pride Month honoring gay and lesbian members of the U.S. military.

Swokowski, a retired Army infantry colonel who lives in DeForest, is transgender, having transitioned nine years ago, two years after her retirement in 2005.

Her journey to acceptance wasn’t easy. In 2007, living openly as a transgender woman got Swokowski fired from her government contractor job as lead course instructor at the Army Force Management School in Virginia. She found other civilian military work, including a job as a senior analyst at the Pentagon.

By 2014, Swokowski had been living publicly as a woman for eight years, but her military record–reflecting more than three decades of service–still listed her under her pre-transition name. She wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and was concerned about which name would appear on the tombstone.

A friend shared Swokowski’s story with a former colleague who was a leader at the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, who encouraged her to file a request for a name change on form DD-214, the military’s central source of identification.

Months passed, and in January 2015, Swokowski got a letter saying her request had been granted. That April, a new DD-214 arrived. She was, officially, Sheri Swokowski, colonel, Army infantry.

“Then,” Swokowski says, “a friend of mine put an idea in my head to come to the next Pride event in uniform.”

While gays and lesbians have served openly in the military since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, transgender people were still banned from serving openly in 2015.

Swokowski hadn’t worn a uniform since her retirement, due to her transition. With her name now changed in the military record, she thought the time was right to make a statement, wearing the infantry insignia and colors as a woman. Because women weren’t then allowed in the infantry–that changed in January 2016–Swokowski would be the first woman, as she says, to “legitimately” wear the uniform.

“I thought it would be a way to illustrate to leadership that they still have people serving in silence,” Swokowski says.

At the June 2015 event, the Pentagon took no official notice, but the media did. Swokowski was interviewed by CNN, MSNBC and Al Jazeera America. The White House noticed. Swokowski was one of four transgender veterans invited to be in uniform at a White House reception two weeks after the Pride event at the Pentagon. The following month, July 2015, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter directed his department to study the issue with the expectation of soon “welcoming transgender persons to serve openly.”

Swokowski, who built a home in DeForest some 20 years ago, is a Wisconsin native, born in Manitowoc. Her family was Roman Catholic and she served as an altar boy. Even then, she felt something was amiss.

“I knew from a very young age I was different,” Swokowski says. “I didn’t have a name for it.” She knew she was a girl.

She suppressed it, pre-transition. Swokowski married, fathered a child and enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, beginning a long military career that in 1986 switched from federal civil service to active duty. Over the years, she served at numerous posts in Wisconsin.

The mid-1970s publicity surrounding the transsexual tennis player Renee Richards was, for Swokowski, a revelation.

“Finally, for the first time,” she says, “I knew that there were others like me. That was a big awakening. But by that time I was working full time for the Guard and in the military and knew better than most that being transgender, or whatever it was called at the time, was disqualifying for service. So I suppressed it. I suppressed it very deeply.”

Swokowski retired from the Wisconsin National Guard on Dec. 31, 2004. After a couple of years, she took the civilian Army teaching job in Virginia. Swokowski’s wife stayed behind in Madison.

Swokowski began transitioning–living her authentic life, as she calls it–in the Washington area in 2006 and 2007.

She legally changed her name in 2007. Her wife was supportive, but in the end they divorced. Swokowski is estranged from other family members, and that hurts her. She lost the teaching job.

Still, she never doubted her decision to be who she is, and she became an advocate for others, especially transgender military people, who, she says, would be better soldiers if allowed to be their authentic selves.

On June 30, 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense officially lifted the ban on transgender military service–something Swokowski played a role in.

“I will continue to be a voice for the transgender community,” she says.