Healing the Wounds of Transgender Wars at the VA Hospital in Tucson

Sue McConnell sits at her desk while volunteering at the Tucson VA.
Sue McConnell sits at her desk while volunteering at the Tucson VA. Randi Lynn Beach

click to enlarge McConnell says the Tucson VA has become a refuge in a nation that's up in arms about her very existence. - RANDI LYNN BEACH
McConnell says the Tucson VA has become a refuge in a nation that's up in arms about her very existence.
Randi Lynn Beach

CHAPTER 1: Sue McConnell walks past a picture of a saguaro and down the sterile halls of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tucson with purpose. Her colorful, tattooed arms sway lightly as she moves like a soldier in combat. Nothing slows her pace — except for all the damn hey-sayers.

Everyone and their doctor, it seems, knows McConnell. The 64-year-old is as omnipresent as the nature photos that line the walls of the Southern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System. She’s there volunteering her time at least four days a week, for seven hours a day, licking envelopes and helping out anywhere she’s needed.

“Hi, Sue,” a woman says to her as she weaves her way through patients in wheelchairs and wearing “Vietnam Veteran” hats.

As she crosses into another corridor, a man in a button-down shirt shakes her hand: “It’s good to see you,” he says softly.

At least four more people address McConnell as she beelines down the bustling halls. The simple greetings mean a lot to McConnell, who’s spent much of her life being avoided.

“I’m famous,” she laughs. “I always tell people, ‘If I ever get a life, I’m out of here.’ Once someone said, ‘But this is your life isn’t it?’ And it is.”

But all of these friendly passers-by don’t really know McConnell. They see her smoke-rimmed blue eyes, piercing like a needle. Her shoulder-length brown hair. They see the faded black ink depicting a chain that links around her right wrist. But they can’t know what it all represents.

McConnell isn’t just a volunteer — she’s also a patient. She’s a Vietnam War vet who served in the Navy. And she’s transgender, meaning she identifies as female, although her birth certificate says “male.”

She’s one of 183 patients, as of June, utilizing the Tucson VA’s transgender services. All of these patients kept their gender identity under wraps when they served — transgender soldiers were barred from the military until last year.

When it opened, this VA in particular was one of only four in the country’s VA system that had a transgender clinic, which offers hormone therapy, breast prosthesis, and specialized mental-health care.

McConnell considers the hospital a refuge of sorts. It’s a safe place in a nation that’s otherwise ambivalent about whether transgender people should be able to serve in the military, or even use the bathroom that aligns with the gender they identify with.

The hospital’s walls are covered with photos of cheery, yellow flowers and classic Arizona scenes of sunset in the desert. Everything looks and smells clean, like you could lick cafeteria Jell-O off the green floor.

But the world is getting messier and messier every day outside the VA’s comforting walls for people like McConnell.

That’s why Dr. Sonia Perez-Padilla, M.D., feels it’s so important for transgender veterans to feel accepted at the hospital.

Perez-Padilla began forming a team to better serve the needs of transgender patients back in 2011. In 2015, the hospital opened up a face-to-face clinic that was more hands-on.

With the help of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, or SAGA, run by Tucson transgender rights crusader Erin Russ, the program was formed to foster a comfortable and tolerant environment for patients who were used to facing discrimination — in hospitals and in general.

According to McConnell, the transgender clinic has succeeded.

She feels welcome here — by the hospital’s people and its policies. But despite efforts from doctors and staff, there’s an ominous presence looming over the VA, literally and figuratively.

McConnell walks confidently past a concierge desk in one of the VA’s many lobbies. “Hiya, Sue,” a man behind the desk calls.

click to enlarge Sue McConnell tries to avoid looking at a portrait of President Donald Trump in the Tucson VA. - MOLLY LONGMAN
Sue McConnell tries to avoid looking at a portrait of President Donald Trump in the Tucson VA.
Molly Longman
Then her demeanor changes. She hitches her shoulder up. Her eyes meet President Donald Trump’s as she passes a portrait of the man who said people like her shouldn’t be allowed to serve their country. Posed in front of an American flag, his face looks grave.

McConnell makes a concerted effort to ignore the portrait. She picks up her pace and looks as if she wants someone else to say hello.

CHAPTER 2: Sue McConnell knows fear. The night before she was discharged from the Navy in 1972, she got off a bus to go to a now-decommissioned military barracks on the Treasure Island Naval Base in San Francisco. She was living as a man at the time.

She remembers seeing the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary looming in the distance on an island across the water.

Then, she says, she was attacked.

“I was knocked out,” McConnell said. “When I came to, I had people holding me down and my face was pressed into the dirt.”

While she was on the ground, McConnell says six men beat and raped her. She doesn’t know if they were fellow service members.

“Maybe they knew there was something different about me,” McConnell says now. “But I didn’t think I was projecting anything … I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I should have been able to protect myself.”

More than 20 years later, in 1999, McConnell found the courage to file for service-connected disability: compensation paid after Veterans Affairs decides a veteran’s illness or injury was incurred or aggravated during active military service.

It took 18 years, letters from therapists, and multiple hearings in veterans’ appeals court, but she says she was finally granted disability for military sexual trauma.

“The Board resolves all reasonable doubt in favor of the Veteran and finds that she has PTSD as the result of military sexual assault,” a court document sent to McConnell reads. “Service connection for PTSD is granted.”

“That letter meant more to me than I can say,” she remembers.

But the rape wouldn’t be McConnell’s first or only encounter with fear.

She felt fear when she had to shower with the boys in gym class as a child. She felt it during the Vietnam War when she was working as a boiler technician on an ammunition ship in the Gulf of Tonkin during a typhoon. When she gave up alcohol 38 years ago. When her daughter, Jody, committed suicide in 1994. When she bounced around in different missions and homeless shelters in Reno, Nevada. She felt it again as she rode her 1990 Honda Gold Wing motorcycle up Interstate 70 from St. Petersburg, Florida, during Hurricane Katrina.

click to enlarge McConnell, a member of the all-female biker group, the Chrome Angels, dresses "for the slide, not the ride." Her leather jacket sits on the back of her chair as she volunteers at the VA. - RANDI LYNN BEACH
McConnell, a member of the all-female biker group, the Chrome Angels, dresses "for the slide, not the ride." Her leather jacket sits on the back of her chair as she volunteers at the VA.
Randi Lynn Beach
And then there was her transition — an experience that redefined fear for her.

McConnell had been privately trying on female clothing since she was a kid, but she didn’t begin her transition until about 1998. Her depression had reached a low, so she decided she wanted to wear female undergarments in public. The problem was buying them.

She stood helplessly in an aisle of her local Walmart in Bremerton, Washington, where she lived at the time.

She was there to buy a bra. As she stared at the sea of padding, patterns, and price tags, she felt overwhelmed. She looked like a man. She needed a cover.

“I didn’t even know what size I actually wore,” she recalls. “I just knew I wanted to feel feminine.”

But she didn’t want customers to know that. She took out her cellphone and put it to her ear.

“I can’t find this one,” she said to no one. “What size was that?”

She put on a show for the other shoppers, portraying the role of the confused husband.

Then the phone rang.

“If you’re going to do that, turn your phone off,” McConnell recalls today with a laugh.

Then her tone gets more serious.

“The reason for all of that was that, that kind of situation — just becoming who you are — can be really fearful,” McConnell says. “But there’s a difference in the kind of fear I’m talking about with the hurricane and the fear of coming out. One is an immediate fear. The other was a gradual fear … It was chronic.”

But McConnell faced her fear. She began living full time as a woman in 2009.

She says every time the 1969 Frank Sinatra song “My Way” plays through the radio in her home, she’s reminded of what it was like to overcome that fear of coming out.

The lyrics used to depress her: “For what is a man, what has he got. If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels.”

“Now, I hear it and I feel joy because I did it, ” McConnell says. “It doesn’t bring that sadness any more.”

But now, some of that fear has returned.

click to enlarge Sue McConnell keeps herself busy by volunteering, biking, drawing, and playing with her dog, Bebe. - RANDI LYNN BEACH
Sue McConnell keeps herself busy by volunteering, biking, drawing, and playing with her dog, Bebe.
Randi Lynn Beach

CHAPTER 3: McConnell felt personally attacked this summer when President Trump signed a directive that will ban transgender people from being recruited into the military. The president said these gender-nonconforming soldiers cost too much and could affect military readiness.

People like McConnell believe that sentiment is unfair and is a product of the epidemic of intolerance spreading across America.

Like many transgender veterans, she served her country feeling like a woman disguised man and didn’t transition openly until years after she was out of the service.

“I wasn’t really out, out in the military,” McConnell says. “In that time it was like voodoo. You couldn’t say anything. It was a total no-no. You could get hurt or kicked out. … It’s taken a lot of years, but they finally started making some progress where it was okay to be gay or trans in the military. Now, this is a slap in the face.”

Transgender people have already served in the military in large numbers — in secret. A RAND Corporation estimate suggests there could be as many as 6,600 active-duty transgender troops and more than 4,100 in the Reserves. Advocates think this number is low and say there could be up to 15,000 transgender service members.

So when Trump announced via tweet in July that the military would no longer allow “transgender individuals to serve in any capacity,” McConnell said it came as a bewildering blow.

“When I heard about that, I started having trouble breathing,” McConnell said. “I ended up in the emergency room because of that. My blood pressure went crazy … those things, they trigger a lot of emotional stress. People have no idea what it’s like. They can say that it shouldn’t bother you that much, but it does.”

Although she recognized that tweets don’t dictate policy, she could feel the storm brewing.

Then, at the end of August, things got real. Trump signed a directive stating that transgender soldiers couldn’t openly enlist, unless and until the secretaries of Defense and of Homeland Security recommended otherwise. He gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis six months to prepare a plan to implement the deeply controversial order. That ban won’t go fully into effect until March 23, 2018.

In a September memo, Mattis said the Department of Defense will not take adverse action against current transgender service members this year. The military will still treat those diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a medical condition causing extreme distress over a mismatch between a person’s body and gender identity.

Transgender troops who are qualified can still re-enlist — at least temporarily, until the commission studying transgender military members releases its guidance.

Trump avoided the Vietnam draft four times for college and once after being diagnosed with bone spurs in his heels. Now, he and other critics say transgender personnel could be disruptive and may cost money that should be spent elsewhere.

click to enlarge Erin Russ, an Army veteran and transgender woman, has made fighting for transgender rights her personal mission. - RANDI LYNN BEACH
Erin Russ, an Army veteran and transgender woman, has made fighting for transgender rights her personal mission.
Randi Lynn Beach
But SAGA advocate and transgender woman Erin Russ says this narrative is flawed. The 61-year-old Tucson resident says she knows from experience. She served her country as an infantry officer in the United States Army when she was living her life as a man — but these days she’s dedicated her life to fighting a war for transgender rights.

“Transgender people are just as deployable and just as capable and just as dedicated to the profession,” Russ said.

Look at Kristin Beck, a retired transgender Navy SEAL Team 6 hero who spent 20 years serving her country. She deployed 13 times over two decades, serving in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq. She’s received the Bronze Star Award for valor and the Purple Heart for combat wounds.

Beck has a lot to say about the ban, and challenges the notion that being transgender affects military readiness.
“Let’s meet face to face and you tell me I’m not worthy,” Beck told Business Insider in July. “Transgender doesn’t matter. Do your service.”

As far as costs go, the government is spending considerably more on erectile dysfunction medicines and Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago, respectively, than on transgender medical care. RAND Corporation estimates medical costs to be between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually.

Plenty of advocates, allies, lawyers, and members of Congress oppose the looming ban on transgender troops.
Transgender soldiers were banned from serving openly until 2016, when the Pentagon lifted its ban, joining 18 other nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia in opening armed services up to the gender-nonconforming crowd. Following the Obama-era amnesty, transgender troops could no longer be discharged because of their gender identity.

In 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a study looking into “policy and readiness implications” of allowing these transgender people to serve openly, creating a July 1 deadline to set definitive policy on transgender recruits. Mattis postponed the deadline this June, just a month before Trump’s tweets that sent a dark cloud looming over transgender soldiers and veterans.

“It seems like what’s happening is everything everyone’s worked for is being undone,” McConnell says.

Republican Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain co-sponsored a September bill in support of transgender people serving in the military. The Arizona senator has openly criticized Trump’s move toward a ban since it was announced.

“When less than 1 percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country,” McCain said in a statement.

At least three lawsuits aiming to convince federal courts to stop the trans ban have been filed: one by the ACLU, a second by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, and another by Lambda Legal and OurServe-SLDN.

But even with these power players fighting against Trump’s directive, McConnell says the rhetoric surrounding the ban brought the same feelings of fear she experienced the day she bought a bra in Walmart.

click to enlarge Sue McConnell volunteers her time at the VA least four days a week, for seven hours a day, licking envelopes and helping out anywhere she’s needed. - RANDI LYNN BEACH
Sue McConnell volunteers her time at the VA least four days a week, for seven hours a day, licking envelopes and helping out anywhere she’s needed.
Randi Lynn Beach
CHAPTER 4: “Did you read the pathology report?” McConnell asks Dr. Sonia Perez-Padilla. “It’s not cancer?”

“It’s good news. … I know that was a concern of yours,” Perez-Padilla says of McConnell’s recent surgery, during which her left testicle was removed for a biopsy.

McConnell sits in a chair directly next to Perez-Padilla’s desk in her cozy exam room office. It’s the kind of chair you’d imagine sees more purses than people, with patients usually perching on the exam table across the room.

Perez-Padilla has a soft voice and bright blue fingernails. She sits in front of her computer in a room that would be clinical, if it weren’t for all the personal touches. Seven colorful handwritten cards are stuck to a mauve wall. There’s a tiny Polly Pocket doll wearing a lab coat and a pink dress next to the sink. A picture of Perez-Padilla’s daughter, Marirosa Padilla, wearing an Air Force uniform sits atop packages of rubber gloves.

All of these items make this office in the Tucson VA’s women’s clinic feel more like a home to Perez-Padilla and the transgender patients she serves at least twice a day.

Erin Russ with SAGA assisted with the program’s formation, offering training so Perez-Padilla and her team could provide quality care with extra sensitivity toward these transgender patients.

The training was necessary — on a nationwide scope, transgender patients are some of the most likely to be mistreated by medical professionals.

“We work with the VA and other organizations to bring about a supportive community,” Russ says. “In general, the discrimination and the challenges that transgender people face are extreme.”

One-third of respondents to the 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality’s U.S. Transgender Survey said they’d encountered mistreatment when seeking health care. That mistreatment could come in the form of verbal harassment or being refused treatment based on gender identity.

What’s more, a quarter of the survey’s recipients said they didn’t seek health care because they feared “being mistreated as a transgender person.”

Although the VA system in general is far from perfect, this particular doctor at this particular VA wants to change the way transgender individuals interact with doctors and nurses.

Perez-Padilla says she teaches diversity training to health care professionals around the state for doctors who “carry a lot of misunderstandings of what it means to be transgender.”

While the Tucson VA’s transgender services started out treating only 60 patients, today it serves about 180 patients in the southern Arizona area — either in person or via electronic consult.

Many of the medical services offered to transgender patients are essential to treating gender dysphoria, including hormone therapy, speech modulation therapy, and breast prosthetics.

“It’s nice to know that some patients have enrolled in this VA specifically because they know we have this program,” Perez-Padilla says.

But there’s one thing the hospital won’t do: gender reassignment surgery. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs called off its plans to allow these surgeries for transgender patients because of budget concerns.

Many transgender people and allies considered this a slap in the face, but since the president announced a ban on transgender troops, these advocates have bigger fishy political moves to fry.

Perez-Padilla says her transgender clinic will offer pre- and post-operative care to patients who chose to have reassignment surgery.

“We have a ways to go,” Russ says. “But people in the VA system are more supportive than the people who … make decisions for the VA system.”

click to enlarge Sue McConnell sits solemnly in her driveway in front of her 1983 Yamaha Virago. - RANDI LYNN BEACH
Sue McConnell sits solemnly in her driveway in front of her 1983 Yamaha Virago.
Randi Lynn Beach

CHAPTER 5: There’s a lot going on in McConnell’s
one-bedroom home in Tucson.

It’s important to her to stay busy to keep her mind from going to dark places. Places that include thinking about Trump, or “Donnie” as she derisively refers to him, and his directives.

That’s why she spends so much time at the VA.

“I’d have nothing to do but sit by the pool and think if I wasn’t here,” she says.

That’s not entirely true. The self-proclaimed “Jackie of all trades” finds ways to make sure her hands are never idle. Her dog, Bebe, keeps her occupied tossing a yellow tennis ball. She draws and creates leatherwork. She’s a certified notary and the head of an all-female biker group, the Chrome Angels.

“I always joke about it being difficult, being a tough outlaw biker when you’re wearing a thong and a bra,” McConnell jokes.

After hopping around the country, living in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Nebraska, Indiana, Nevada, California, Washington, and Idaho, McConnell says Tucson is the first place where she’s felt safe planting her roots.

Her home is bursting with color. Her drawings cover the white walls, with yellow, blue, and red flowers practically jumping out of their frames. A desk is scattered with pieces of tan leather and paint bottles. Hanging on the closet door is motorcycle vest so covered in butterfly and state-specific patches that you can barely see the denim.

But amid all this color, one black-and-white picture of a smiling man in a Coast Guard uniform stands out.

The picture hangs framed above her desk, and McConnell finds herself looking at it often.

At one time in her life, someone might have mistaken the man in the photo to be McConnell. But it’s a picture of her father, Charles Riggs.

Family is a touchy subject for McConnell.

Her parents are dead. McConnell and the brother she idolized don’t talk. She has a son from a previous marriage who won’t speak to her. She says she hasn’t been in a successful intimate relationship since her divorce in 1988.

“I’m alone,” she says. “When I went through my transition, I realized my friends of 20 years were just people I’d known for 20 years. All the closeness was gone.”

SAGA’s Erin Russ says this is a common occurrence for transgender people.

“Families are a challenge,” Russ says. “For me, (when I told my family), I was afraid I’d be disowned, but was very fortunate in that my parents were very supportive. They were almost expecting it.”

Russ says coming out as transgender takes strength. She likens it to a scene from the summer superhero flick
Wonder Woman.

“There’s this part where Wonder Woman climbs up out of the trenches and walks across the battlefield all by herself and becomes the focus of enemy fire. … Just being in the middle of huge turmoil all by yourself. It’s like that.”

McConnell agrees that it takes superhero-like courage to come out to those who love you.

“Once I decided that I was going full-time female, I realized there was a great possibility I might spend the rest of life alone,” McConnell says.

That’s why it’s so important to her to have a second family in the VA — a hospital she wouldn’t have found if she hadn’t joined the military.

But it was her real family that led her there.

For as long as she can remember, she looked up to her brother. She wanted to be strong and masculine like him. So when he joined the Navy as a noncommissioned officer when McConnell was 12, she says she was “devastated.”

“When I was growing up, he was my hero,” McConnell says. “I thought I’d never see him again, so, when I could, I decided to follow him into the service.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be the brother-bonding experience she’d hoped for.

“I thought I was going to have this closeness with my brother after that,” McConnell recalls. “But that didn’t end up happening.”

This is the story she tells when people question why she’d want to serve her country in the first place, knowing she was different.

While most advocates agree banning transgender service members is a violation of an American’s right to serve, people can’t quite wrap their heads around why transgender individuals would want to.

The military has a long history of barring specific, marginalized groups of people from serving their country. Exactly 69 years to the day before Trump’s tweets targeting trans military members, Harry Truman banned racial segregation by integrating the military. Restrictions on gay and lesbian service members were lifted in 2011. In 2015, women were allowed to serve in combat roles for the first time.

And just because transgender troops were allowed to serve in 2016, it doesn’t mean all their peers and officers accepted them.

Marlon M. Bailey is an associate professor in women and gender studies at Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation. He argues transgender military members may face considerable discrimination while serving in what he believes is a flawed system that’s hostile to gender and sex minorities.

“Everyone should have the right to serve in any institution in our so-called democratic society that the U.S. claims to be,” Bailey says. “ But, on the other hand, one should rethink the nature of the institution they want to be included in.”

And he says the reason the military creates what many construe as an unwelcoming environment has to do with a greater systemic issue. The way Bailey sees it, the military is a microcosm of all the issues society in general has with the LGBTQ community — from Trump’s military directive to the “bathroom bills” restricting transgender access to public facilities.

“It’s a vexed issue, but one that is a collection or extension of larger society still dealing with gender equality,” Bailey says.

And although some factions of that society aren’t ready for transgender servicepeople, they love veterans.
McConnell and other veterans like her are honored and admired for their service to the country every Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and damn near every day. And yet, discriminatory policies like Trump’s military ban dishonor and denounce the same people.

“One can be revered for giving their life to fighting overseas … while, at the same time not fully being able to benefit from the very democracy that [they believe] they are fighting for,” Bailey says.

click to enlarge Sue McConnell served in the Navy in the Vietnam War until 1972. - RANDI LYNN BEACH
Sue McConnell served in the Navy in the Vietnam War until 1972.
Randi Lynn Beach

CHAPTER 6: Every Friday, McConnell sits at a large gray boardroom table in the Tucson VA.

She sits with other gender nonconforming veterans for a transgender support group.

It’s a top-secret affair. They follow the “what happens in support group stays in support group” rule so everyone feels safe sharing their stories.

They begin each session “checking in” and talking about their week. Then they dive into the deep stuff.

“We’ll talk about our lives and problems — like buying clothes or suggestions on where to go and how to overcome fear the first time you go into a public restroom,” McConnell says. “Things like that.”

They talk about what it’s like to be transgender in a nation that’s up in arms about their very existence.

The group has shown McConnell a lot of support over the last four years. She says it’s a safe space where she can talk about anything — from her fears to Trump’s directives to the weather.

“The group has become my family,” McConnell says. “I can go to any person in the group and talk about my feelings without being judged or criticized.”

She met her one of her best friends, Kristyn, through the group in 2013. Today, they call each other “sister.” McConnell stayed with Kristyn while she was recovering from her testicular surgery early last month. Every week, they meet at a local Denny’s restaurant and gab.

Kristyn did not want her last name to appear in the piece.

Even with the support group’s help, McConnell hasn’t quite bought into finding the serenity to accept the Trump policies she cannot change. But she’s found ways to live with them.

“People look at you. Even today, I’ll have issues with people who don’t think I should exist,” McConnell says. “It’s very upsetting … You get very angry and, you know, just don’t act on it.”

And the VA is a big part of that. McConnell says she worries someday she’ll lose the hospital that’s become a stable home base in an otherwise shaky world.

Luckily, the Department of Veterans Affairs Press Secretary, Curt Cashour, said the VA policy has not changed.
“We provide care, benefits, and other VA services to all veterans, including transgender veterans,” Cashour said in an email statement to Phoenix New Times this summer.

In a red state, in what’s becoming a red country, the hospital remains a blue dot in McConnell’s mind.

A few years ago, McConnell made history as the first transgender person to be named female volunteer of the year in the Tucson VA system.

“It means a lot to me that I mean a lot to them,” McConnell said. “They basically saved my life … If it wasn’t for the VA, I would be bouncing around like a BB in a box car.”

The award is framed and now hangs on McConnell’s wall among leather roses, hand-drawn daises, and the photo of her father. Her name is printed on a “female volunteer of the year” plaque in the same VA hospital hallway as Trump’s portrait.

“The VA helped me get my life together,” McConnell says. “I’m grateful for having this program — to be open, to be able to be recognized … as a female.”

“They’re there for us,” she says. “At least in here, people don’t have to hide.”

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Molly Longman