State 10: Maryland
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. | October 26-27, 2017
Video by: Gabe Dinsmor
[Written by: Kendra Clapp | Photos by: Tyler Way]
In the midst of a concrete jungle, Navy Veteran Paula Neira found her calling looking out to the water. Growing up in Jersey City, located just across the Hudson River from New York City, Paula would ride her bike behind the banks to watch in awe as WWII warships were scrapped at a nearby Naval shipyard. A true sailor, she’d pay close attention to the passing ships and airplanes in the sky, dreaming of the day she’d get to be a part of the history and legacy of the U.S. Navy. In those moments, something was calling out to her from beyond the horizon and sky. A young child, she understood her personal duty to serve her country and defend the constitution.
On July 26, 2017, President Trump announced on his Twitter account that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to “serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” reinstating a ban that had just been revoked the previous year. I found myself scrolling through articles trying to understand how official a Twitter announcement could be, what this meant for active servicemembers, and imagining how it would feel to be turned away after enlisting to serve your country.
I thought about the Veterans we had worked with on the tour, how each was different but all shared a pride of having served in the collective that is the U.S. military. Just as my thoughts were racing, I came across a quote in an NBC article that skipped over the banter surrounding transgender servicemembers and plainly stated:
“Nobody who is willing to volunteer to defend our country should ever be told that they’re not fit because of other people’s prejudice, and not because of any military necessity.”
These were the words of former Naval Officer Paula Neira.
On chilly October morning weeks later, Tyler and I walked into Annapolis’ historic Chick & Ruth’s Delly. As we headed toward the back of the cramped yet charming cafe, men and women with an array of United States Naval Academy (USNA) apparel glanced up at us while they had their morning coffee. On the bright orange walls hung portraits of the many sailors, officers, and variety of government officials who have enjoyed a meal or two there. We were meeting Paula and graphic designer/videographer KC Corbett and missed the deli’s daily ritual of reciting pledge of allegiance by just fifteen minutes.
As life goes, KC already knew of Paula. Both working at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, he once helped work on a video that featured her. Near one another daily yet separated by a couple degrees, the two were finally meeting due to their common interest of participating in the Maryland state project of the 50 States tour. The magnetism of shared interests plays a crucial role in the tour, showing us time and time again that what is separating most connections is the intentional action of simply approaching and meeting one another.
Intention wasn’t something missing from young Paula’s life. Since those days along the banks of the Hudson River, she knew she would one day be out at sea. What she didn’t know then was the bigger role she would play after her service.
After our three coffees and Coca Cola were delivered to the table, Paula shared with KC of her childhood in Jersey City, growing up playing baseball and soccer, her grandparents emigrating from Spain, and how she was proud to have come from a blue-collar family. Paula’s father, a WWII Veteran, was a Teamster and her mother worked as a school crossing guard. She laughed as she explained how arrogant it was, in retrospect, for her to have only applied to two colleges: USNA and as her back up school, the Coast Guard Academy. When KC asked what it was that drew her to the Navy, she responded that, “It was a noble profession.” The combination of a Jesuit background and her parents instilling a strong set of core values led Paula to believe that, “if you are blessed with talent and gifts, you have an obligation to use them for the greater good.”
With a passion for the past, Paula graduated with distinction and a BS in History from the Naval Academy in 1985. She was a qualified Surface Warfare Officer (SWO), a position the Navy describes as “the backbone of Fleet leadership” with many eventually serving as a commanding officer later on. Involved in all aspects of Naval missions and water warfare, SWOs are crucial to the success of the Navy. Paula thrived on her position’s dependability, serving for five years and then later one year in the Reserves.
When we all finished with our breakfast, Paula walked us through downtown Annapolis, along the old brick roads, past the statue of Roots author Alex Haley that observes where his ancestor arrived from Africa as a slave hundreds of years ago, and toward the grand entrance of the Naval Academy located just along the edge of the Annapolis harbor. What felt like a walk through history, the quick tour reminded us all that we are not observers but participants in the events seeming to occur all around us.
Another reminder of the times, we cleared the entrance’s security checkpoint and metal detector and headed toward one of Paula’s favorite parts of USNA’s campus: Bancroft Hall. The largest single dormitory in the world, “The Hall” is home to thousands of midshipmen as well as a variety of offices, shops, and miscellaneous rooms, from a gymnasium to a laundromat.
As if it were plucked out of Paris, The Hall was designed in the Beaux-Arts style with intricate sculptural work against bold, clean stone structures. With Paula leading, we entered the ornate rotunda, looking up at the pristine marble and detailed dome above us. Paula listed the different dorm rooms she lived within the hall during her four years at USNA, pointing “down that hallway,” “up that stairway,” and “that widow.” Thirty-two years after graduating, the excitement was still there.
Through the rotunda and up the marble stairs, we entered Memorial Hall. A grand, elegant hall with freshly polished floors, the silence of the space consumes you walking in. Centrally displayed, visitors are welcomed by a flag stating “Dont [sic] Give Up The Ship.” After hearing about his friend Captain James Lawrence’s dying words aboard the USS Chesapeake, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry flew a flag during the Battle of Lake Erie containing Lawrence’s battlecry. After the incredible success of defeating and capturing six British vessels, the United States went on to win the War of 1812 and the flag, as well as the saying, has remained a symbol of strength and dedication for the U.S. Navy. The original flag is located in a more controlled environment at UNSA’s museum and its replica is proudly displayed in Memorial Hall, surrounded by plaques memorializing the 2,660 USNA alumni who have died in service to their country.
Wherever we looked, Paula was there to share the story behind every painting, portrait, and plaque. At some point walking in the enormous hall, I overheard KC quietly humming Be Our Guest. It wasn’t a disrespectful gesture but instead, for a creative fun-loving guy that recently worked at Cartoon Network, I saw it as a moment of authenticity. Together they walked the hall in awe, both fans of storytelling, whether it be in history or cartoons.
In 1989, as a Lieutenant, Paula was accepted into Naval Aviation for pilot training and in early 1990, she reported to. While waiting for ground school to begin, she recognized that becoming a pilot was not going to solve the “gender stuff,” as she puts it, and that she no longer had the energy to continue compartmentalizing. Unable to tell the flight surgeon about the struggle over her gender identity, she informed the doctor that she had had a kidney stone off-duty. By telling the truth about a medical condition that was not in her official record and would result in being grounded, Paula gave up the dream of flying but continued to serve by joining the Naval Reserves.
On August 2, 1990, Kuwait was invaded and later occupied by Iraq, a crusade led by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Then in the Reserves, Paula volunteered to return on active duty to serve in Operation Desert Storm, the combat phase of the Gulf War. Taking her up on the offer, the Navy sent Paula into a combat zone and in May of 1991, she joined a forward-deployed task group and spent the summer in the Arabian [Persian] Gulf in mine warfare combat operations.
At this point we were heading out toward USNA’s exit, stopping for a moment at the statue of the Navy’s mascot, Bill the Goat. Interrupting her own story of returning to active duty during the Gulf War, Paula quickly tells us the history of the goat, or rather, the debated origins of it.
“No false modesty,” Paula states as she continues afterward. “I was one of the folks the Navy wanted to keep. I was very, very good.”
We go through the gates, exiting the campus, and reach an intimate garden area. A walkway near the entrance of the academy yet separated from a busy Annapolis street by short orange-brick walls, Paula walks over to a plaque containing the mission of USNA. It reads:
The mission of the Naval Academy is to develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.
“If there had been an option to serve and be who I am, I would still be in the Navy,” she says. Her voice wavers with emotion. After serving the summer of 1991 in the Arabian [Persian] Gulf, Paula returned home with the new mission of being true to herself. “When I got home I said, ‘Hey, you have got to do this.’” She changed her legal name and got her ears pierced, beginning the process of accepting who she always knew she was.
Shortly after, Paula learned that she was accepted into the Navy TAR program (now called the Full-Time Support program- FTS), a program that allows Reservists to work as full-time active duty members in support of the Navy Reserve Force. “I would drive to the beach in the morning, sit in the sand, and would cry my heart out,” she remembers. “I would look at ships, stay there until sunset, and then drive home. I did this same thing for a week. At the end of the week, I had to say no.”
She takes a moment for a breath of chilly autumn air.
“The hardest decisions of my life was not accepting that I am a female and doing the appropriate decisions I then had to do,” she continues. “The hardest decision was telling the Navy, ‘No, I’m not coming back,’ and not being able to tell them why. If I could have asked for help to work through the issues of accepting who I was and be able to live authentically as me, I would still be serving. They would have had to drag me out kicking and screaming.”
On November 15, 1991, Paula told the Navy she could no longer serve. With courageous introspection, she recognized that to maintain her integrity and be true to herself, she had to decline. It was her price of freedom.
“The minute I would ask for help I would have been kicked out… the minute I would say anything about my gender identity I would be kicked out,” she says to us. “I likely would’ve gotten an Administrative discharge, a General Discharge under Honorable Conditions, that’s what they did to transgender folks, give an Administrative Discharge for a ‘personality disorder.’” Ineligible for VA care and health insurance, a General Discharge also prohibits the use of GI Bill benefits.
Paula explains the potential transitions Veterans face after leaving the military, “There are some Veterans that despised their time in the military and are more than happy to leave the organization. There are those that retire after an entire career and are moving onto the next phase of their life. Then there are others that leave for a whole variety of reasons, moving on in life, those medically discharged.” Paula pauses, her hands raised in a descriptive fashion. “But then there are LGBT Veterans who wanted to make the military their career, and whether they got kicked out because of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) or they left because of transgender purposes, or that they couldn’t live authentically, they left. Because of the way I left, I never dealt with it because the military culture isn’t supportive or willing to talk to people with how they feel. Asking for help with emotions and feelings is not something that’s respected in the culture. It’s better today than it was, there’s more attention, but there’s still that stigma that asking for help is seen as a weakness as opposed to a strength.”
Behind her Transition Lenses that have turned dark while walking around the academy’s campus, Paula’s eyes begin to well up with tears. She momentarily apologizes, explaining that she had told herself she wasn’t going to cry. We all try to reassure her that she has no reason to apologize. Although we will never be able to fully understand Paula’s pain, after hearing her story, we will always carry with us not only her hurt, but also her triumph in continuing the fight after leaving the Navy.
The next morning, we headed to Paula’s house in Bowie, Maryland, for the second project day. Pulling up to the house on the block with a big Navy flag in front, we knew we were at the right place. Paula welcomed us in, offering us pastries and coffee in her Spanish-style kitchen filled with rustic wood furniture and tiled floor. Sitting around the big dining table, we left off from where we ended the day before.
In the years after resigning, Paula went on to nursing school, eventually becoming a registered nurse, working for different hospitals and agencies including the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2001, she completed law school and acquired her Juris Doctor degree. Through writing about the impact of DADT, she became involved with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a legal nonprofit that represents the U.S. LGBT military community worldwide through education, advocacy, legal services, professional development, and member services.
Motivated by her unwavering dedication to the Navy and the U.S. military as a whole, Paula viewed her work with SLDN as an extension of her service. “When I first got into the fight, I thought that if I could get these rules changed fast enough, I could go back,” Paula shares. “The maximum age for a Flight Nurse in the Air Force Reserves is 48. If I had been in shape to meet all of the athletic, PFT (physical fitness test), and medical standards, I had this crazy notion that I could get into the Air Force Reserves… It just wasn’t mean to be. The Navy would not want me back because I was just too old.”
While working for SLDN in Washington DC, Paula was only three blocks away from the White House on 9/11. “I got off the train and ran into a friend of mine. We went into the conference room where they were all watching the news. The first tower had been hit… the second… then there was the report from the Pentagon. When we saw that get hit, my friend and I immediately understood that this was an attack. Everyone around the White House evacuated since they didn’t know where Flight 93 was going,” she says, recounting the tragic day. “I was feeling what everyone else was feeling: grief, shock… It was one of the worst days of my life. I was an expert warrior. It didn’t matter that I had three ways to contribute to the mission. My country and my Navy didn’t want me. That was a part of the motivation into changing the regulations. I didn’t want anyone else willing to volunteer and willing to take those sacrifices not to be able to. Because your gender identity doesn’t match the one you were assigned at birth? That’s not a medical reason for why transgender servicemembers cannot serve. Yes, the military discriminates. But it needs to discriminate on real reasons.”
As part of leading the efforts to pass the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, an act allowing LGB people to serve openly in the military, Paula’s fighting paid off. She leads us all to her study where above her desk hangs a copy of the bill with a December 2, 2010 approval stamp, a small coffee stain in the upper lefthand corner, and President Barack Obama’s signature. Looking up in awe, KC eventually breaks the silence.
“With my life,” Paula reflects, “leaving the military was a big risk but I know I needed to do that in order to live an authentic life for me. Really, it meant being aligned with my core values. Living in the shadows meant that constant compromise of integrity so in order to avoid that, I had to risk losing everything. I had to take that chance. I look back on things and think, ‘ok, yeah, I could’ve stayed in the closet and maybe I would have gotten my wings and been an admiral now,’ but there’s no guarantee of that. All the people in my life now and all the things I’ve done, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.” She points to the bill. “It’s had this impact on thousands of people I’ll never get to meet, but it was my job. On some level, it’s nothing special. As a USNA grad, we see doing extraordinary things as what we’re supposed to do.”
Paula walks us through the rest of her office, pointing out the framed photographs of ships she has served on, identifying her different medals and ribbons displayed, and laughing at her WWI propaganda poster that reads, “Gee!! I wish I were a man… I’d join the Navy… Be a man and do it.” KC scribbles away in his black notebook with the words “Let’s get sketchy” handwritten in the front. Paula pauses. Suddenly remembering something, she looks for and finds a manila folder containing comics she and her friends drew while in the Navy. She sits down at her kitchen table, lays out the folder, and flips to one in particular titled, “THE NEIRA SIDE.” Two cartoons (modified Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoons) and a bold “GO NAVY, BEAT ARMY” graphic are hand-drawn below in bright colors.
With a talent set that includes illustration and animation, KC admires the cartoon’s statement of the obvious. A depiction of a caveman identifying a massive mine and a giant shipwreck with the use of a stone microscope, the speech balloons state “it’s a MINE,” and “it’s a WRECK.” He pulls out his phone to show Paula some the work he’s done lately. A fan of cinema and television, he shows Paula a digital illustration of the Night King and Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. While he scrolls through his phone to find something else, Paula’s eye catches a beautiful portrait of the late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, a piece KC did in commemoration.
“I am a Jedi Master. I’m more of the Obi-Wan, a warrior Jedi. I am a fighting Jedi,” Paula states blatantly. “I want a lightsaber and a blaster.”
KC doesn’t miss a beat. He pulls up an illustration he did of Yoda eating pizza with the statement “Yes, yes, but first eat we must” underneath.
Bonding over their shared love of Star Wars, the conversation quickly bounces back and forth between them. Almost suddenly, Paula brings up her Jesuit-education background, clarifying that she is no longer Catholic but instead sees herself as “Jedi Christian.”
“I describe my Christian belief as a Jedi Christian belief in that I believe that good and evil are real and they exist and you as an individual, you have the capacity to turn to the dark side. You have to continually make choices to be good. God, this notion of the force, is a universal force that binds us all together that is inherently good,” she explains.
Her golden rules? “Don’t be a schmuck” and “Take care of people.” Plain and simple.
KC asks Paula what message she wishes to convey through the design.
“That today, our military, our Navy, is stronger and better because of increasing our diversity and inclusion in the force,” she states referring to LGBT servicemembers, among others.
It wasn’t until June 30, 2016, that the U.S. military lifted the ban that prohibited transgender personnel from openly serving. Just over a year later, President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum reinstating the ban, with multiple military leaders disagreeing with his order. A couple of months later on October 30, 2017, a federal judge temporarily blocked the White House’s policy of reinstating the ban. Then, on November 21, 2017, a second federal judge blocked the administration’s order and beginning January 1, 2018, transgender individuals could enlist in the military again.
Yep, it was as confusing as it all sounds. The alternating notions of whether transgender servicemembers could or couldn’t serve in the military has resulted in a communicative mess. Ultimately, it’s a reflection of our turbulent political environment.
“Progressives like to see this as a potential civil rights movement,” Paula expresses. “But we’re not talking about transgender people. We’re talking about soldiers, sailors, that happen to be transgender or gay and never screw up the priority that the mission always comes first. I want to find a way for the imagery to include that LGBT people are Veterans because most people if you ask them to describe a Veteran, they describe a white male who is cisgender, straight, and predominantly Christian. That’s what everybody thinks of as a Veteran. To find a subtle way of including in there to say, oh yeah, those people are Veterans too, that would be great.”
“My other idea… I was thinking of the imagery of a child watching the boats on the water,” KC thinks out loud. “The boats are going by and this child is there dreaming.”
Within a circle, KC sketches a child sitting on a beach, looking out to the horizon through a pair of binoculars, watching ships off in the distance. He spins the paper around to show Paula. More so than the concept of the ship in a bottle, Paula gravitates toward this latest proposed idea. As she looks it over, she suggests adding elements that include both when she was a child looking out to the Hudson and later when she was an adult deciding to resign from the Navy.
KC opens his “Let’s get sketchy” book, flipping to a blank page and starts again with a circle. “I think there’s an interesting aspect of time in this idea too,” he says while drawing. “I want this to be a sunrise. Some of my favorite moments are going to the beach and watching the sun come out.” He takes out his watercolor set, adding pink and blue tones for the morning sky and water while also subtly nodding to the colors of the transgender flag. Once finished outlining and adding color, he pulls out markers to highlight the sketch as well as draw the ships and planes off in the distance. We all watch as, bit by bit, he adds layer upon layer to the piece.
Already asked of the message she wishes to convey through the design, Tyler then asks if she has any favorite mottos or sayings that she might like to include. Telling us she has to think about it for a moment, she eventually gets up and goes inside. A few minutes later, she comes out holding a bright blue book, the Reef Points book issued to the incoming USNA class of midshipmen, the “fourth-class” who are more commonly referred to as “plebes.” She flips to a page containing a quote by John Paul Jones, the father of the Navy.
“He who will not risk, cannot not win,” she reads. She sets the book down. “To me, this quote is about being brave, willing to fail. You have to have some audacity, you have to be willing to risk.” Reflecting on her life, she continues, “Living an authentic life is asking ‘What do I care so much about that I’m willing to lose what I’m trying to achieve?’ and ‘What do I need to do even though I know I may fall short?’”
She pauses, thinking for a minute while staring at KC’s illustration.
”Yeah, there’s this romanticized version of looking back, but there’s no guarantee that the other path would have led me there,” she says in reference to a career in the Navy. “It’s more ‘here’s the path and it’s is what you make of it.’”
After putting the finishing touches with chalk and watercolors, KC hands his sketchbook to Paula. The page is filled with a beautiful cloudy blue background with the circle in the center. Looking out across the sea, a young girl wearing a Navy shirt watches the sunrise as ships and planes pass by.
“Looking at your artwork, to me, I’m sitting on the beach and looking out at those ships, dreaming. I dared to do and I did it. And it’s that process of doing that’s shaped everything.”
There’s a pause.
“To dream is to dare and to dare is to do,” she finally says. “What you’ve got here, it really sings to me. The colors are subtle but natural. One of the things I miss about being at sea is standing on the bridge underway, looking at the horizon, the vast emptiness of the sea, and a sky full of stars. In this design, there’s a notion of a person looking out, that the sky is the limit, the vision is to the heavens… Whatever that vision is to you, that’s what you do.”
Selected in 2016 as the co-sponsor for the USNS Harvey Milk along with California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Paula will be looking out to sea in time. “It’s supposed to be that the sponsors imbue the ship with their character, spirit, and personality,” she explains. “Traditionally, it’s the wife of a senior official or it’s a female that’s related to the ship’s namesake. It’s usually a civilian female. There’s a technicality of being a sponsor, that the only people that are permanently assigned to the ship are the sponsors. The way I look at this, I’m a member of the ship’s company. When the ship goes to sea, I’m going to go to sea.”
Likely the first openly transgender and lesbian sponsor in the history of the Navy, an incredible and significant accomplishment, Paula is actually in the most unique of circumstance due to the fact that she’s only the second female USNA graduate and the first surface-warfare-qualified woman to be named as a sponsor. With years of experience under her belt and a love for the sea, she understands what it’s like to be a part of a ship’s company. She explains how she hopes that her experience and perspective will allow her to connect with the crew, “I understand what it’s like to do their job. Hopefully, that will make me a better sponsor because I do understand what they do. I can be more involved to make sure they’re taken care of.”
There it is! One of her golden rules: take care of people.
“It’s a way that I get back to the fleet,” she states smiling. “I feel bad for the ship’s crew.” She laughs. There is excitement in her eyes. Construction on the USNS Harvey Milk was slated for the beginning of 2018.
I would say the Navy doesn’t know what’s coming but in reality, they completely do. They always did and still do. In 2014, Paula filed her case to change her name on her military records. Almost a year later, she received a letter stating that her name change had been approved, making her the first transgender Navy Veteran to have her records reflect her proper name by order of the Navy.
“The big motivation for name changing, for transgender Veterans, is to have their correct name on their DD-214 document. Every employer goes to ask for it so for a transgender person if it’s a different name it just opens the door for discrimination since it’s legal in the U.S. to discriminate against transgender folks in many jurisdictions,” she conveys.
She then shares her personal reason behind her name change request. “My motivation was that when I die, I’m eligible to have my ashes in Arlington, where my parents are. If I outlive Arlington, I’d have my ashes inurned at the USNA cemetery. One way or another, when I croak, I’m going home and I wanted to make sure I got the right name on my headstone. I can see some bureaucrat saying, ‘oh well, this is the only name we got!’”
Knowing her from Johns Hopkins Medicine as the Clinical Program Director at the Center for Transgender Health as well as a Nurse Educator, KC mentions that he already knew she was an extraordinary person. Yet, getting the opportunity to know and interact with her was truly inspiring. He thanks her for sharing her story, mentioning that it can’t be easy.
“Today with the political environment the way it is, I know that people view me as a leader in the fight and part of being a leader is that you have to be strong for other people,” she responds. “It’s the sacrifice of having to constantly tell my story because it makes it a real story. I know how effective it is but it takes a toll of going back to those days of your life. The pain is still there because I’m constantly having to go back. It’s a scabbed-over wound that is always going to be there.”
We can all hear the ache in her voice.
“Sacrifice is supposed to be selfless,” she continues. “But that sacrifice shouldn’t have to still cause pain, however. I’m teary-eyed, 25 years later.”
For a minute we all sit in silence, understanding that while well-intentioned, a project like this has led her to relive some of the most agonizing moments of her life. Paula interrupts the silence.
“I always march to the sound of the guns,” she says, referencing a saying from Waterloo. “It’s that desire to always want to be in the action, to be in the fight. I don’t think it’s glory hunting or going for the adrenaline rush. It’s more of, ‘This is what duty is telling me to do.’ If I’m in that action, if I’m there risking, if I’m going in harm’s way, that means somebody else isn’t there. That means somebody else can stay home.”
Paula isn’t one to sit back and watch history pass her. An active participant, a dreamer, risker, darer, and doer, Paula is full steam ahead.
“Even when things are falling apart, have the audacity to go forward,” she advises.
She takes the crystal stopper off of her USNA decanter filled with a Spanish whiskey and pours us each a shot. We clink our glasses together to celebrate the success of the project, of the opportunity to get to know one another, to hear Paula’s powerful story, share it with others, and for daring to be a part of history through valuing the service and dedication of all U.S. servicemembers and Veterans.