By Emily Starbuck Gerson

When Sam Rodriguez joined the Navy around six years ago, they identified as lesbian, though they never felt comfortable in their own skin. After years of self-reflection, Rodriguez realized they were actually a “transmasculine non-binary queer badass.”

Uncovering their authentic self brought them comfort, but it added frustrations as a sailor. Despite the military becoming more accepting of transgender identities, service members still must identify as a binary gender, adhering to dress standards and facilities of male or female. 

This forces Rodriguez to constantly navigate how to live authentically and mitigate gender dysphoria while also fitting closely enough within the military’s binary system. Fortunately, at home, Rodriguez can be fully themselves. They currently live in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, with their wife, whom they married in 2017, and their child, whom they had in September 2020. Rodriguez’s wife is a Deaf cisgender woman, and they use American sign language in the home. Rodriguez continues to face challenges, but by living loud and proud and advocating for families like theirs, they hope the military will become more supportive of non-binary service members and Deaf military spouses. 

Modern Military Association of America: When you joined the military, where were you in your journey of gender identity and sexual orientation? Were you concerned that joining the military would be challenging because of your identity?

Sam Rodriguez: When I joined the Navy in 2015 at 28 years old, I was out and proud lesbian. I had been out at that time for around 13 to 14 years and was single. I had wanted to join the military for a long time, but one thing that kept me from entering was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I come from a conservative family that was not in favor of queer people; I did not want to subject myself to an occupation where I had to hide who I was after breaking out of my discriminative upbringing. 

As far as my gender identity, I struggled with my identity my whole life without realizing it. I did not have the language or understanding of what non-binary was until age 30; I felt trapped in this paradox of not feeling like a woman but not feeling like a man. Even though I have had transgender friends since I was 18, I, too, was stuck in binary biased thinking. 

MMAA: What was your experience of realizing you were non-binary?

SR: Discovering my identity as non-binary seemed like this lifelong expedition I didn’t know I was on. As a young kid, I was adamant that people knew I was a tomboy while also hating labels and conformity. I always hated that I had to cover my chest, and things got worse as I hit puberty early and got my cycle at a very young age. 

My mom was pretty controlling when it came to the assumed gender binary of ‘pink is girl.’ For some odd reason, when I hit puberty, she wanted me to dress and act like a young lady. As a teen and young adult, my expression varied across the spectrum as I tried to find my place in life. 

Self-discovering in any form is like going to a junior high dance. Some parts are awkward or embarrassing, other parts feel incredibly isolating, and then there is that glimpse of hope when your crush smiles at you. Ultimately, I discovered what non-binary was through YouTube and Instagram postings from other non-binary folx. Many were on testosterone and had received top surgery, everything that I wanted, and at the time didn’t understand I could have it also even though I didn’t identify as a male. Through this, I clarified I was not a confused trans guy or gender-nonconforming lesbian. 

MMAA: What was it like coming out in the military, where there isn’t a way to officially identify as non-binary? Have you experienced any discrimination or mostly acceptance? 

SR: Coming out in the military has been an annoying process that seems never to end. Because of the gender binary and bias construction, I have to sacrifice parts of myself still every day while I wear the uniform. 

In my personal life, I use the restroom I feel most comfortable and safe to use, depending on where I am. In the Navy, I must continue to use the female head because my gender marker says female, my assigned sex. I work in an all-cis-male DET and have often felt uncomfortable during deployment when my berthing and head usage were a substantial ordeal because of my gender marker. 

As a trans service member, regardless if you fall on the binary or outside of it, you have to constantly out yourself. My pronouns are they/them; however, because of the binary system, I am assumed FTM, and people use he/him at work. I have accepted this because God knows it’s better than the alternative. 

However, I wish that I could go by my actual pronouns of they/them. It is not easy. When someone uses she/her pronouns after working with me for so long, I immediately think, what pronouns do they use when I am not around? Do they not respect me and take my identity seriously? When a new person shows up and uses he/him pronouns for me and then one day slips, I think, did someone out me by violating my privacy and trust? 

Constantly feeling like a target on my back is something I don’t know if I will ever shake while on active duty. I say that because I feel like I will always be known and spoken about as “the trans person.” I can’t help but feel that I am not invited to coworker get-togethers because they do not see me as an equal. It seems most of my life I have been fighting for people to see me as just Sam, not your gay friend Sam, but Sam, not the trans person, but just Sam. 

MMAA: Has it been challenging essentially having to choose a binary identity within the military?

SR: Being transgender in the military has its own struggles, but being non-binary adds a whole another dimension. Every day I am still sacrificing so much of who I am and my identity to fit the binary industry of the DOD. 

Because the military does not recognize someone’s gender identity outside of the binary, it does make things more of a hassle than if I were a trans person who fell within the binary. 

For example, I do not want to legally change my gender to male so that my life in the military can be a little easier; I mean, would it be more manageable? Not really. I have an ETP (an exception to policy) for grooming and uniform standards, but everything that is segregated by “gender” remains my assigned sex. Having to choose is annoying. As a non-binary person, I feel invisible. No one talks about us in the military, not even when discussing transgender service members.  

MMAA: How do you think the military can adapt to be more inclusive of non-binary people and in general be more gender-neutral? 

SR: The military needs to adjust its perspective and eliminate gender bias. The military needs to understand that assigned sex is not the same as gender identity. I don’t have a lot to say because the military is so f’d up regarding other issues of hetero-ism, cis-ism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, racism, that the inclusion of non-binary people is the least of my concerns. 

I do feel in general, though, that inclusive language and practices can happen. Normalize asking pronouns and adding them to email signatures, allowing for awards and evals to be written with they/them pronouns. By updating BCA and PT standards that are not based on gender/sex, respect pronouns regardless of DEERs. Respecting people for who they are and how they do their job, and not what their legal sex is. I also think in general, the military needs to make sure they have mental health providers who are culturally competent with LGBTQ issues and other marginalized groups.

MMAA: I know your spouse is Deaf; what has been your experience with the military? Have you two felt supported, and is there more that can be done to be inclusive of deaf spouses?

SR: There is more the military can do to support service members who have a Deaf spouse. One thing that I have yet to achieve is having an interpreter hired for awards or promotions. The EFMP program also needs to expand its knowledge and resources. 

Additionally, we are isolated from other military families because the general public does not know ASL (American Sign Language). My wife has not connected with other spouses during my deployment or other military mom friends because of the language barrier. Consequently, this means our local network and support system is essentially nonexistent. 

MMAA: What has it been like for you to be an LGBTQ parent while serving in the military?

SR: Being an LGBTQ parent in the military, in my experience, is different. I think, in general, as an LBGTQ person and non-gestational parent, sometimes you are not taken as seriously as a parent. 

Additionally, I noticed the most when our tiny human was first born is that questions revolve around the birthing parent and baby. No one thinks to ask how you are doing as the non-birthing parent, which I was struggling and adjusting to. 

From my experience, because we are practicing gender-creative parenting (we did not assign/assume a gender based on our kid’s genitals and will use they/them pronouns until they tell us how they identify), people do not engage as much. 

Although my parenting practices have nothing to do with being an LGBTQ parent, it adds one more thing the general population within the military does not know how to relate with, so they decide not to engage. I recently had to update and add my kid to my page two documents, and it was annoying to have to select a gender. Why can’t they just be listed as a child? What is the significance of saying daughter, son, stepson/daughter, adopted/daughter/son? I mean, they are all your children.