PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Shannon Scott is a transgender combat military veteran — serving nearly 12 years in the U.S. military and Air Force. She received the Iraq Campaign Medal for her two tours.
“I used to put my life on the line for the country and now I’m going to spend my life in this fight,” Shannon told KOIN 6 News.
She’s since changed battlefields as she now fights for people’s equality.
Shannon hid her gender identity for decades. She didn’t want to leave the force, but when a coworker outed her to the commander, she was given two options: Stay in the closet or be dishonorably discharged.
“A discharge would mean losing my home, losing my livelihood, losing all the things I had worked for and sacrificed for the last decade of my life,” she said.
But, she said, more importantly — the dishonorable discharge was undeserved.
“Everything was crumbling around me,” Shannon recalled. “I was losing my family, I lost my partner. My friends were disappearing. My coworkers wouldn’t even speak to me — and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.'”
Shannon was fortunate enough to find work in Portland with the federal government, which qualified her for an honorable discharge.
“I was one of the lucky ones, but there are a lot of other folks who haven’t been so lucky,” she said.
As Pride is celebrated, a Gallup poll released Thursday shows that 71% of adult Americans are in favor of allowing openly transgender men and women to serve in the U.S. military.
On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled House voted to block President Donald Trump’s move to ban transgender people from military service. However, the move will struggle to become law as it faces opposition in the Senate and a Trump veto threat against the underlying spending bill.
The Williams Institute estimates that there are more than 15,000 transgender troops serving the United States right now. Soldiers, who Shannon fears, face the same fate. She explained that the cost alone in retaining those additional troops is astronomical.
“Shannon’s experience is an illustration of why we need the Equality Act,” Sen. Jeff Merkley said. “It would establish full equality for opportunity for all Americans.”
Sen. Merkley has been fighting for LGTBQIA+ equality for years. His Equality Act recently passed in the House and if it passes the Senate, it would block the president’s transgender ban from remaining in effect.
It’s a measure Shannon hopes to see passed in her lifetime.
Shannon’s time in the military may have ended too soon, but she doesn’t have any regrets.
“What I’ll say is I loved it,” Shannon told KOIN 6 News. “I loved what I did and when you love what you do, you’re able to be your best at it, so it was really challenging for me to have to say goodbye to that.”
Shannon added that she hopes other trans troops won’t have to say that.
When Shannon decided to come out
Shannon was born in raised in Great Falls, Montana — which she describes as a very small town, patriarchal, masculine place.
She said by far, she was always the softer and more sensitive one. For instance, first to cry at a sad story or swoon when a puppy walked by. Since she stood out, she was always the one to get picked on.
“I learned pretty quickly to hide those emotions when I was young,” she said. “I learned to assimilate to the guys around me, even though it felt disingenuous, but I knew it was a part of survival in that environment.”
She knew she was different — but didn’t know how. First, she wondered if she was gay or bisexual. Growing up, she didn’t even know that transgender existed.
When she finally learned about transgender people — she realized she was too.
“For a long time, I didn’t want that,” she said. “I saw how the world treated transgender folks. I saw how difficult life is for people in our community and I thought that’s not a life that I want to live.”
She sought out therapists to try and “fix” her. But eventually, therapists said, this is just who you are.
Why Shannon came out
During her time in the military, she was deployed all over the world, serving in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. She was part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and finished her final tour there.
”It was something on that final duty that changed my life forever,” she said.
She got on the typical military cargo plane, with familiar webbed seating and boxes filling the plane, usually packed with everything from missiles to Humvees.
However, this time the boxes were different. Shannon was curious.
As they made their ascent out of the combat zone and leveled out, she shouted to the loadmaster over the roar of the engine.
“What is in these containers?” she asked.
He said “HR” — meaning, human remains.
“It was at that moment that my life changed,” she said. “I looked at these people who had given the ultimate sacrifice. I experienced survivor’s guilt — and I still do to this day, thinking ‘Why me?’”
She sat on the plane, wondering why the mortar fell steps behind her and her fellow soldier. Why did the rocket pellet grenade fall on his bunk when he was sleeping, she thought, and not mine?
”Witnessing these people who had given their lives for this fight– I said I can’t hide anymore,” she said. “I can’t live half a life because I still have mine. So I said, I’m done hiding, I’m done lying.”
What happened when Shannon came out
It was challenging.
“I lost my family for a while, we didn’t speak for a very long time,” she said.
Shannon explained it’s important for everyone to understand that whether you’re the person transitioning or the family members, friends or a coworker that both parties understand that transition is hard. It is confusing and challenging for everybody involved.
“Be as patient as you can, be as empathetic as you can, say you’re sorry when you make a mistake and try and do better,” she said.
For instance, if you mess up someone’s pronouns, she says don’t deny it and pretend it’s their fault, just apologize and realize mistakes happen.
There was a time in her life when she didn’t see a path forward, I was about to lose everything I spent a quarter century of my life working toward.
Spending more than a decade in the military — she understood that things get hard, but you can get through obstacles things because of what the military teaches you. But at this point, she didn’t see a path forward.
“I didn’t’ see a light at the end of the tunnel — there was a lifetime of misery, loneliness and agony,” she said. “I couldn’t live that life.”
If it wasn’t for the occasional hug, or small acts of kindness — Shannon doesn’t know if she’d still be here.
Shannon said there are still a lot of families out there who won’t have a transgender or gay child.
“You can’t stop them from being transgender or gay or queer, so they just stop having a child?” she said. “That’s terrible, to choose to lose your child. I don’t know how that happens, but it does.”
If you have the opportunity to tell someone in that situation, ‘you’re not alone,’ Shannon said those can literally be lifesaving words.
“There was a person who was that shoulder for me and they saved my life,” she said.
Shannon said, don’t be afraid to be that someone.
Shannon’s call to action
She challenges people to become an outspoken ally, talk to family, friends, congressional representatives and be supportive.
If you have the time, do some volunteer work with equality organizations or if you have extra money, write that check.
“We are making progress, it’s a long road, but we will get there,” she said. “We won’t stop until we get there.”