by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
There's a saying that many people in the U.S. Navy have memorized and it goes, 'It's a small world, and an even smaller Navy.'
In other words, you can travel this whole wide world and as big as it is you will still inevitably run into someone you served with at a previous command whether you want to or not. It's these kinds of truths that make the Golden Rule such a damn good rule to follow. Because when you do bump into an old friend it makes things a lot more enjoyable if they really are an old pal and not an enemy.
Life is lived in a circle. Regardless of how you live, it all comes back around. For U.S. Navy veteran Hill Landon Wolfe, at this moment in time, nothing could be truer than those words. Luckily for Hill, the Golden Rule was followed and friends outweigh enemies ten to one.
On March 23, Hill posted to his Facebook wall, '10 years ago around this time I was preparing my discharge paperwork from the Navy. My time spent in the service was the most valuable to me, more than any other period in my life. Perplexed by some of the socially regressive policies of the military and failures of the VA, I made the difficult decision to leave, hoping that I could do something outside of the military to somehow help make it better.'
Hill continued, 'Today, I accepted an internship position with Congressman Derek Kilmer's Office, who is the representative of the district with the most veterans, more than any other congressional district, and where I was stationed at 10 years ago today wondering what was next for me. I'm really looking forward to doing policy work for my beloved shipmates and battle buddies who deserve better.'
'I love it when things come full circle,' said Hill.
IN THE NAVY
Many people in the Seattle and the Tacoma area of Washington state might know Hill one of two ways - as advocate or educator. Hill is Transgender. He uses masculine pronouns and lives his life identifying as a man. Aside from being a veteran, Hill is also a former member of the City of Seattle LGBTQ Commission and board member at Ingersoll Gender Center. Few people, however, know Hill as he once was: 16 years old, sitting in a Navy recruiter's office in 2002 when America was still in the beginning stages of the Global War on Terrorism.
'By the age of 17, I swore in and was in the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) and was training in my hometown, preparing for Active Duty once I graduated from high school,' Hill recalls. 'When I enlisted, I had little self-awareness about my feelings and what they actually meant. So in short, I was not out as Trans* in the military because frankly I wasn't even out to myself.'
'Ironically,' Hill said, 'When I first got to my ship, the very first person I met was a sailor named 'Hershey' who was on duty guarding the ship.'
Hershey became Hill's best friend, and the two of them are still close to this day. Like Hill, Hershey transitioned from female to male after the service as well.
'At the time,' explains Hill, 'We both didn't have the knowledge we have today to be able to come to a place of wisdom and comfort about our identities.'
Hill's Navy career was eventful. He worked hard as an Aviation Boatswain Mate on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier (launching and recovery equipment).
'I was stationed on the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), originally on Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, California and then we moved up to Bremerton, Washington, on Naval Base Kitsap where the Stennis still holds homeport,' Hill told Seattle Gay News.
Although Hill found the Navy to be a good fit, it wasn't a perfect fit. And that became more apparent to the young sailor as time went by.
'I enlisted well before I fully embarked on my journey of representing myself through my male identity,' said Hill. 'Unaware of who I really was, I was identifying as a female and was perceived as such.'
At the time Hill was one of only a few females out of over 30 airmen.
'There was a lot of overt sexism and harassment toward female airmen and little to no accountability for actions,' said Hill. 'Additionally, when I joined the Navy, I had yet to have a romantic relationship and had no awareness of what types of people I was intimately attracted to.'
Hill met his first girlfriend while he was serving and says he can remember constantly being in fear of anyone finding out because it was against military policy to disclose information about your sexual orientation if it was anything other than heterosexual.
'At the time, people would perceive my relationship as a 'same-sex' relationship since I was female identified and dating another female,' recalls Hill. 'The unique thing about the military is that you live and work with the same group of people in close quarters, doing probably the most stressful and intensive work that humans can do. The work of service members always has the tone of 'life or death' because that's quite literally what our work is about.'
'Being so close to these people was tricky, because aside from being harassed for not being male, you could also be harassed for not being perceived as heterosexual,' said Hill, adding, 'The 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy quite literally forced people to lie about who they are, who they were seeing and forced people to be very calculated about how they talked about their partners, themselves and their personal lives.'
'Talk about extra stress,' he said.
According to Hill, not every division and sailor would harass someone for being female and/or queer, but this was unfortunately not the case with his division.
'Leaving the Navy was one of the most difficult decisions to wrap my head around,' remembers Hill. 'Oddly enough, the adjustment of going from military life to civilian life was just as perplexing, confusing and stressful as telling my family and friends 'I'm male, I'd like to be called by this name now, I'm really your brother, your son, etc.' and going through the adjustment of being socialized as a woman and telling the binary world we live in that I am the exact opposite of what they think I am.'
'I felt completely broken when I left the Navy,' said Hill.
Despite experiencing the effects of the socially regressive culture in his division, Hill found that he loved the order, the regimented life, and the work.
'Maybe it was the resilience I developed of having to protect myself and well-being, but I was determined to make things better upon leaving,' he said. 'I love the mission of the military and the complexities of its role comparatively with other nations. I know it's almost paradoxical, but I choose to also see the value in the military as an institution and not let the negative social experiences cloud over those aspects.'
Having faith that the military could do better, Hill had a ton of questions of why things were the way they were - for example, why is an institution as efficient and progressive as the military so regressive when it comes to diversity and culture? Hill says this was especially troubling especially considering that he met the most unique, diverse individuals during his time of service that he says will forever be in his life.
'I assumed the best way to find answers to these questions was to go to college and study public administration and take core courses in sociology, diversity and inclusion,' he said.
LIFE AS A VETERAN
Present day, Hill told SGN he accepted an internship with Congressman Derek Kilmer's office as a unique opportunity to get a better understanding of the ropes pulled behind the curtain when it comes to laws and regulations governing our current service members and veterans.
Congressman Kilmer is the Representative of the 6th Congressional District of Washington, which has the most amount of veterans than any other district. The district also encompasses most of the City of Tacoma, which was named the 'Gayest City' by The Advocate in 2013.
'The district is interesting to me because it definitely has what people would consider as conservative roots, but also has a rich diverse culture and is overall politically progressive,' said Hill. 'I am beyond humbled at the opportunity to help serve the constituents where my original duty station is (Naval Base Kitsap).
Hill told SGN he also got an offer to serve in Jim McDermott's office for the summer, but said, 'I think I'll have a lot more to learn outside of the Seattle area.'
Like many in the LGBTQ community, Hill believes that Transgender people should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.
'The current debate is really interesting,' said Hill. 'You have prominent Trans* activists who are not champions of this cause, because they are not about the military as an institution. Then you have activists on the completely opposite end, who feel being Transgender should remain a medical disqualification. The funny thing is, Trans* people are already serving in the U.S. military.'
Estimates from the Williams Institute are that more than 15,000 Transgender troops are currently serving.
'The true question is whether or not open Trans* service should be allowed, which is not-so-ironically-akin to the fight on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' Hill points out. 'The main difference is changing the requirement to allow open Trans service is a medical regulation, and is a policy that can be administratively lifted by the Obama Administration. Some of our allies even allow open service, including Canada, Australia, Israel, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Studies have continually shown that there is no current rationale for having the ban in place. The medical standards are outdated and antiquated. I have no doubt that the ban will be lifted in my lifetime. The only remaining question is, how much longer will we have to wait and have the ban be a barrier to recruiting our best and brightest?'
So why would someone who left the military because they didn't feel they were welcome recommend that others join?
'What I love about the military is that each service member experiences being a part of something so much larger than themselves,' said Hill. 'It's humbling really. This doesn't mean that you lose your identity, but rather bring forth the individual skills and strengths that you can contribute. The military taught me the importance of patience and discipline. The military also taught me how to reach out and ask for help, and the importance of working with other people, regardless of how different they are from you.'
Hill says when you put on a uniform, you are symbolically communicating that you are a part of a collective community.
'Great things can absolutely be achieved by individuals, but everything is a lot more efficient and rich when working with others,' he said. 'The military also taught me to lead, that regardless of how much stress you are going through or how scared you are, you are more powerful than you think you are. It's just a matter of stepping up to the plate for the sake of others.'
MILITARY OVERALL CAN DO BETTER
For any Trans person who is planning on coming out after the military, Hill would suggest they find support.
'They should build what my first doctor who administered my Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) called a 'tribe' - a collective of supports of friends, family, and colleagues,' he said. 'One thing I learned from the military is that big struggles are best done with help.'
Lastly, Hill told Seattle Gay News, 'I would just want to add that I think the military overall can do better with numerous social policies. I think they have a ways to go when it comes to sexual harassment, sexual assault, combating racism and ensuring that Gays, Lesbians and Bisexual people are not harassed.'
'Again, I have hope and faith that it can and will get better,' concludes Hill. 'The work just has to be done. That's where I come in. I just want to help.'
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