ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — Coming out as a transgender female saved Maj. Rachel Jones’ life.
The U.S. Army Sustainment Command Cyber Division chief, G6 (Information Management), struggled with depression and suicidal ideation for most of her life. Today, she is living her truth and is no longer battling depression or suicidal thoughts.
The observance of Pride Month, celebrated every June, was first recognized by the Department of Defense in June 2012. It is a time when the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community come together to celebrate love and authenticity. Many LGBTQ+ people must overcome deep-rooted fear, shame and adversity in order to live as their most authentic self, though.
The road to self-acceptance was not easy for Jones. Before coming out privately to her therapist, Jones lived every day deeply depressed and suicidal.
“When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s there was a lot of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. I don’t think many people meant to do that, but it’s something I heard as I was growing up repeatedly. So much so that I was convinced I was inherently evil for being transgender,” said Jones. “The pressure of hiding all of the time was so bad I grew up depressed and suicidal to the point that I always had a plan to end my life.”
Jones, however, feels lucky to be alive today. “Even when deployed, the greatest threat to my own safety was myself,” she said.
The risk of depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal ideation is twice as high for LGBTQ+ veterans and Soldiers who have concealed their true selves than non-LGBTQ+ veterans and Soldiers, explained master resilience trainer, Stephanie Allers, who serves as a program specialist and suicide prevention liaison in the ASC G1 (Human Resources) Readiness and Resilience Division.
“One reason for this is the chronic, toxic stress experienced by those who need or opt to hide their true self and those who have experienced loss of support or interpersonal and professional relationships because of their identity or sexual orientation,” said Allers.
While on a six-month assignment away from home, Jones finally realized that she needed to make a change. She made an appointment to meet with a therapist to sort through these feelings and learn self-acceptance.
“Since getting into therapy, I was able to detangle my feelings about being transgender and disconnect it with being evil and the suffocating shame. I started to accept and love myself,” she said.
Comparing her coming out journey to her military life, she added, “It’s like taking off a very heavy rucksack. While the ruck is on you can’t move like you should, your body aches and you just want to stop. When you take the ruck off, everything feels lighter and easier and there’s a massive sense of relief.”
Allers explained that the relief felt from living as one’s true self is known to help prevent suicide.
“Imagine having to conceal your true self every day, for an extended period or maybe even your entire life. How many of us could do that?” she asked. “Living as our true selves helps mitigate suicide, because the opposite — denying our true selves — is so deeply painful, most individuals cannot live with the hurt, shame, guilt and personal betrayal it creates.”
Although Jones privately came out in 2019, she could not publicly come out due to the military’s ban on transgender service members.
In September 2011, the policy on military service of non-heterosexual personnel “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, was repealed, allowing lesbian, gay and bisexual service members to openly serve in the armed forces. This did not apply, however, to transgender service members.
In October 2016, transgender service members were temporarily able to serve openly under the Department of Defense Instruction 1300.28. In July 2017, the president announced that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.
“It was very risky to my career to be seen in public as a transwoman prior to the ban being lifted,” said Jones.
Effective April 2021, DoDI 1300.28 was reinstated, once again allowing transgender service members to serve openly.
A Soldier's gender identity will no longer be a basis for involuntary separation or military discharge, denied reenlistment or continuation of service, or subjected to adverse action or mistreatment, the policy states.
Once the ban on transgender service members was lifted, Jones was finally able to come out publicly as transgender. She was met with nothing but acceptance by her peers and fellow ASC Soldiers.
“People here have been amazing. I know how lucky I am to work in an organization with such acceptance and everyone here has been really supportive. ASC has really embodied the concept of everyone is part of the team,” said Jones. “I was initially a bit fearful of coming out as my true self and how I would be perceived, but I had nothing to worry about. As a Soldier, I’m still treated as a Soldier.”
She observed that acceptance is part of the Army’s core values. One of the Army’s core values, respect, states: “Treat others with dignity and respect while expecting others to do the same. That’s the Soldier’s Code.”
Coming out saved Jones’ life. “I don’t think about ending my life anymore,” she said. “I’m happier and a lot more pleasant to be around, not to mention so much more comfortable with myself.”
Allers is hopeful about the future of mental health care. “Society is beginning to better acknowledge issues related to mental health, suicide and the LGBTQ community," she said. "We are recognizing that struggle is part of the human condition, and we need each other for support to get through difficult times.”
Jones understands that other Soldiers going through similar struggles may not be ready to come out yet but encourages them to accept and love themselves. “I know firsthand how isolating staying in the closet can be, but there is a large community of people waiting for you. This is still the Army, you never have to do anything alone,” she said.
It is important for Soldiers and civilians to support their peers by watching for depressive or suicidal warning signs and changes in behavior, Allers said.
“We can also simply follow the golden rule and treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves,” suggested Allers. “Ask, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Are you ok?’”
Sometimes the people you least expect to be struggling are those struggling the most. Jones’ advice to this is avoid making assumptions about whole groups of people.
“Don’t say those fighting depression are weak and pathetic and don’t call LGBTQ+ people anything derogatory," she said. "This applies even more so when you don’t think someone is dealing with either of these issues.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7.