By Maj Kathryn Foss
Submission to The Maple Leaf
As Major Kathryn Foss reaches the distinguished milestone of 30 years of military service, looking back at what got her to this point also led to contemplating more recent events.
Recently, the new Defence Policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) was released and the Senate passed Bill C-16 amending the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The Defence Policy confirmed the Government of Canada’s vision to put the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) on a road to success with a promise of financial resources to make it happen. Bill C-16 provides legislation which protects Canadians from discrimination and hate speech based on gender identity and gender expression.
As a proud member of the CAF, Maj Foss shares her views on these two distinct and unlinked events as a strong indicator of the commitment Canada has to the CAF and all of its citizens.
Time to transition attitudes
As I took in these recent announcements and discussed the potential impacts with another CAF member, what separated this discussion was that we are both transgender, both actively transitioning to our proper genders and both following slightly different paths.
I thought we’ve become complacent and jaded, dismissing these events as nothing more than rhetoric… not to be believed, but to carry along with us until the next one. This complacency has a cost, to CAF members, DND employees and Canadians in general, and sometimes that cost is as high as lives. The CAF member friend I was having this discussion with has lost five transgender friends to suicide in recent times.
You see, I believe that in this modern society we expect things to be handed to us, to be laid out in front of us, so we need not question “how?” We find ourselves, as Canadians, uncomfortable asking for help because we will disrupt someone else. This becomes dangerous for those of us with mental health issues and compounded when we are transgender. Many of us suffer from fear, anxiety and depression… some so strong that we are not capable of seeking help because we cannot tell anyone who we really are.
But I have hope and optimism. Lots of it. Why, you might ask? It is because of the people I have met and talked to, who helped me when I needed it. I decided to write this article to educate both transgender and cisgender members of the Defence Team that you don’t need to suffer with your burdens. Help is available.
My own experience demonstrated that it isn’t always apparent how to get that help. Although I always knew who I was, I never felt comfortable coming out, especially in an environment such as the combat arms. My fear led to anxiety, which led to other mental health issues. It took me 28 years of service and almost losing myself to suicide to seek help, trust the world around me, and be the real me. I was surprised at both the support and acceptance from the CAF. Sure, I had doctors and supervisors who were honest enough to say they didn’t know what to do next, but we learned together.
I’m sure that many might be wondering why it is so hard to seek help in the first place. Speaking from my perspective, it is because being transgender fosters conflict on so many levels, both internal to oneself and external to the world around you. Very early in life, we see a conflict between what we see in our reflection and what we see inside. We are dressed as per our sex assigned at birth and any attempt to stray from that norm is met with confusion and anger from those around us. As we grow and age, we are conditioned to align with social norms, to believe that being different or not as we were born was somehow wrong or perverted.
Being a member of the military complicates life somewhat. At one point, being transgender would have resulted in release from the CAF—even though it does not make us any less capable or dedicated than our cisgender peers. The CAF has come a long way, but culturally the military has always been a place where gender norms are stretched. Many transgender CAF members try extremely hard externally to fit in, to match or exceed the gender social standards around them, all the while internally knowing full well their real identity is the complete opposite. Most will build up a persona, the person they have to be on the outside to survive, a person who is strong, happy and confident, a person who doesn’t need help. Asking for help would show a weakness, which might require speaking the truth about who the real person is. So help is never sought.
There is a message which I believe should be considered by all members of the department, which is that no one, military or civilian, should ever feel they can’t be themselves, or that they can’t ask for help. We are all human and can be vulnerable. We are also professionals who are able to set aside personal beliefs and care about others like they are our brothers and sisters, because they are our brothers and sisters.
I was wrong—people are truly good
In the past, I personally did not believe this. But I’ve learned from experience that people are good. I assumed that family, friends, and co-workers would have issues with who I am, my ‘dishonesty,’ my ‘choice’ to act and save myself, my weaknesses. I believed that people I don’t know would go out of their way to make my life difficult, to hurt me. I was wrong—people are truly good. So to those who feel they can’t be human and vulnerable, open up and trust those around you to care and support you. To those on the outside, keep your hearts open, leave biases and opinions inside, and be a fellow human who might be in need of your own support one day.
I sit here today a proud member of the Canadian military, a transgender member of the CAF, a gunner, to tell everyone that you can serve proudly and be yourself, your brothers and sisters in arms will take care of you.
Resources may not always be apparent to help. You may not find brochures or posters at base hospitals. There might not be a clinician trained in LGBTQ+ issues. Your chain of command may know nothing about how to work with you and your needs. That should not stop you. Lots of changes are happening. Policies and procedures are being updated, the Government of Canada’s Positive Space Initiative is being rolled out soon to the Department, and clinicians gain experience every day. If you need help, be courageous and ask for it. I know it’s not easy, and you need to be brave, but you will be better for it. Even if you have to ask your chain of command, don’t worry—it is their responsibility to take care of you. People like me exist who can answer your questions, who can advocate for you, and help you put you first. Be strong, be human, be yourself!
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