By Emily Starbuck Gerson
Zander Keig felt called to serve the country at a young age, and as a teenager, the Coast Guard was the best fit. But it was the late eighties, and Keig, who was assigned female at birth, was not treated well in the male-dominated environment.
Keig came out as lesbian to to his mom at age 13 and to his dad at age 20, but being openly out wasn’t permitted in the military. After two challenging years serving (1986 to 1988), Keig was medically discharged for knee and ankle injuries. He tried several other career paths and pursued multiple higher education degrees, eventually finding his calling in social work. While on this journey, Keig began to acknowledge his transness at age 30, then came out to family and started medical transition at 39.
Combining his military experience with his personal identity, he spent years working as a VA and DOD-Licensed Clinical Social Worker, helping veterans access gender-affirming care. He also worked as a civilian social worker with the Navy, where he helped hundreds of active duty servicemembers and their commands navigate gender transition. Keig also served on the board of Transgender American Veterans Association from 2015 to 2020.
Keig now runs his own business, Keig Consulting, where he does public speaking, diversity training, HR consultations, gender transition coaching, and more. As a trans man, first-generation Mexican American, and veteran, he brings a unique perspective to his work. Keig and his wife have been together for 19 years, and he’s also the sole family caregiver for his US Marine Corps veteran father who has dementia.
Modern Military Association of America: Why did you feel called to join the Coast Guard?
Zander Keig: From a very young age, I wanted to be a Marine, like my father. At age 12 I wrote a letter to the Marine Corps telling them about my plans to enlist at age 18. I was advised to consider the Navy because the Marine Corps was looking “for a few good men,” as their slogan states.
I had no interest in joining the Navy or the Army. I set my sights on the Air Force next. At age 17, with a GED in hand, I called up the recruiting station and was told, “We don’t take people with a GED.” I thought I was out of options until my mom suggested I try the Coast Guard.
Honestly, until that point, I had never even heard of the Coast Guard. I made my way to the USCG recruiting station and realized it was the right military branch for me; it was small, it required a higher ASVAB score for entrance, nearly all of the duty stations were domestic, and I would be near water (ocean, lake, river) no matter where I was stationed. Growing up in Southern California by the beach, that last prospect really appealed to me.
MMAA: What was it like being medically discharged after just two years?
ZK: I was medically discharged without retirement compensation and with a 0% VA rating. It really made no sense to me. Why was I being deemed medically unfit for service but not being VA or DOD compensated or offered VA vocational rehabilitation? I appealed the 0% rating. It took me eight years to get rated. Once rated, I was eligible for the VA Voc Rehab (Chapter 31) Program. I attended college and received my BA in Speech.
MMAA: What was your experience serving, and were you able to be out at all?
ZK: I was not “out” 100% of the time. I did have a small group of gay and lesbian pals on base and we regularly went into San Diego’s gay neighborhood, Hillcrest. My duty station was Small Boat Station San Diego on the Group San Diego base (there was also an Air Station on the base).
I was told by the Chief that I was the first female to be stationed at the Small Boat Station and that he was not pleased with my arrival. Part of the issue was that I was a Fireman rate, not a Seaman rate. That meant my duties involved below-deck activities, which were very tight quarters (45-foot cutters), in comparison to the more open space on deck.
My experience as a female was more highlighted than as a lesbian since I was not out to my command. I served pre-DADT, the “witchhunt days,” so I knew better than to broadcast my sexual orientation. I was treated “like one of the guys” by the men in my unit, but my Chief (highest-ranking person in the station) made it very apparent he did not want me there. It was tough two years, to say the least. I am currently rated for PTSD related to my experiences at Small Boat Station San Diego.
MMAA: What did you do in between your time serving and when you became a social worker?
ZK: I was discharged in November 1988 and entered my MSW program in 2010, so a lot of time passed between the two experiences.
Right after my discharge, I went to work as an undercover narcotics agent. Following that, I became a Liaison Officer with a Northern California school district. In the 1990s I made a pivot and entered college as a student and student affairs paraprofessional, earning my BA in Speech in 1999 while a work-study in the GLBT Student Services Office, my MS in Conflict Analysis and Resolution in 2003 while an intern in the Campus Mediation Office, and my MTS in Theological Systems in 2004 while working as a resident hall director for Campus Housing Office.
Between 2004 and 2010, I worked at Out & Equal Workplace Advocates as a Program Associate, Jobs Corps as a Career Transition Specialist, and CA Employment Development Department (EDD) as a Veterans Employment Services Specialist (VESS). In 2010 I began my MSW studies, in my second year I interned at the local VA in the inpatient psychiatric unit, and my first job out of school was at the VA in the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Program.
MMAA: What was your experience of realizing you were transgender? Did you have any concerns as a veteran?
ZK: I first realized I was trans at age 30, in 1996, while in college. Back then “transgender” was not as broadly used and could be used by a gender-nonconforming dyke, which I was at the time. I had no intention of starting a medical transition back then. I was happy in my androgynous presentation and lesbian identity.
Then at age 36, I moved to Berkeley, California. I began to meet many trans men, which had a profound impact on my understanding of medical transition and life as a man. Up to that point, I was sure taking testosterone would make me a violent and angry man. I believed that because it was the rhetoric being spewed by my lesbian separatist friends at the time. It would still be three more years before I started my medical transition in 2005.
My veteran status/identity did not factor into my trans identity at all beyond seeking gender-affirming hormones at a local VA, which I was successful in obtaining. This was six years prior to the original VA Directive (policy) regarding transgender veterans’ access to gender-affirming healthcare was released. The directive was updated in 2013 and 2018 (added orchiectomies for trans women veterans). The directive was recently amended (June 2020).
MMAA: How did you get into social work, and why did you focus on supporting trans service members and veterans?
ZK: While working for the CA EDD as a VESS, I met many social workers and realized that they were paid more than me, even though I also had a graduate degree (two actually), they had more interesting and complex job duties than me, and they had much more credibility when speaking in groups.
For all those reasons and a few more, I decided to apply to San Diego State University’s School of Social Work MSW Program. I was admitted and began classes in August 2010. As I mentioned previously, I completed an internship at the VA and took a job at the VA following graduation. I was primarily interested in working at the VA because they offered one of the few paid internships and, at the time, they were offering student loan forgiveness for full-time social workers.
I found out, much to my chagrin, that the VA stopped the widespread student loan forgiveness program for most social workers just around the time I was finishing my graduate program. By then I was much more invested in working with veterans for ease of rapport with that clientele and the near guarantee that I would not be working with children and would primarily be working with male patients.
Once I began working at the VA, I was appointed to two national internal workgroups: LGBT Patient Care and LGBT Employee Resource Group. With the first group, I was part of a team that reviewed and revised policy and developed employee training related to LGBT veteran care, and with the second group, I co-authored VA HANDBOOK 5975.4 5 TRANSGENDER EMPLOYEE TRANSITION GUIDANCE. Additionally, I completed a nine-month VA Trans Care SCAN-ECHO (telehealth) training program.
After four years at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Health Administration (VHA), I transferred to the Department of Defense (DOD) Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) to hopefully work with transgender servicemembers.
I had been informed, through my involvement with the Transgender American Veterans Association (I was a board member 2015-2020), that DOD policy was coming that would permit military personnel to pursue a gender transition while on active duty.
I started my job at Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) on May 30, 2016. On June 30, 2016, a memo was released announcing the coming change to policy regarding transgender servicemembers, which was followed by an Implementation Guide that outlined details about the development of branch-specific interdisciplinary medical teams assigned to process patients through their medical gender transition.
I was appointed as the Clinical Social Work Case Manager and assigned to the Navy Medicine West (NMW) Regional Transgender Care Team (TGCT) at NMCSD in July 2016. Our region included Asia, Pacific Islands, Central America, South America, and the Western USA. In August 2016, I was tasked with designing and managing the patient intake, orientation, and case consultation process, building and managing the secure patient database, acting as a liaison with the patient’s Command medical staff, and attending biweekly TGCT meetings.
I served on the NMW TGCT from December 2016 to January 2019. At my departure, which had nothing to do with the Trump Administration, I had upwards of 250 patients on my caseload. It was, by far, my favorite job to date.
MMAA: Why did you want to join the board of TAVA, and what were you able to accomplish during your time there?
ZK: I was invited to join the TAVA board of directors because I was a trans veteran working at the VA and active in the FTM community. Part of TAVA ‘s mission is to assist veterans with navigating the complex VA healthcare system bureaucracy. As a veteran who had been utilizing the VA since 1988, at the time a VA social worker and member of the VA Central Office LGBT Patient Care Workgroup, I had access to information and personnel that would be able to directly assist veterans experiencing roadblocks with access to gender-affirming healthcare and an ability to update the patient database (CPRS) with a new legal name and corrected sex marker.
Although Directive 1341(2) had been issued five years prior to my involvement with TAVA, too few veterans were aware of its existence and therefore not aware of the benefits, for which they are entitled, that were available. During my tenure with TAVA, I assisted countless veterans with gaining access to gender-affirming providers and healthcare.
MMAA: You mentioned you’re a first-generation Mexican American. Would you like to share any thoughts on the intersectionality of your identities as a trans person, Hispanic person, and veteran?
ZK: My father and his four brothers were born in Mexico and all served in the US military, so I was raised by a veteran. My father served in the US Marine Corps from 1959 to 1963. There was never a doubt in my mind or my family’s mind that I would enlist in the Armed Forces.
Being Hispanic was never considered a barrier or concern to enlistment. My family was very much oriented towards appreciating and celebrating life in the United States and they passed that sentiment down to me and my 12 cousins.
I was always very aware of being “different” as a kid whether it was being Hispanic or lesbian. I grew up in a coastal suburb in Los Angeles surrounded by Polish and Irish families. We were all Catholics, but that is where the similarities ended. I did encounter teasing and bullying early on for being a “spic” or “wetback” or “beaner,” but when I took my concerns home I was advised to “ignore it” and to “know I was okay.” So that is what I did. Being Hispanic never came up in the military, except when people would point out how “tan, but never sunburned” I got from the year-round San Diego sunshine.
When I legally changed my name in 2005, I selected a name that was not Spanish. I did not realize at the time that it would result in my Hispanic ethnicity becoming invisible — much like my two decades of lesbian activism was no longer visible once I had been on testosterone for several months. The loss of a visible place in the LGBT community and being presumed a “white cisgender man” have been the two most challenging aspects of my gender transition from Latina dyke to White dude.
MMAA: Based on your experience, how has the military adapted to support servicemembers navigating transition?
The Defense Health Agency (DHA), which oversees all military medical care worldwide, has been doing a phenomenal job since October 1, 2016.
All branches of the Armed Forces have multidisciplinary medical teams that include nurse or social work case managers who assist servicemembers with navigating a gender transition. For example, the Navy has the Navy Medicine West and Navy Medicine East Transgender Care Teams in San Diego, California, and Portsmouth, Virginia. The Air Force has one central Team in San Antonio.
If a servicemember is transgender and desires to pursue a medical gender transition, they need to get referred to their branch’s medical team focused on gender transition: typically this is accomplished by speaking with a base/post behavioral health provider who is able to assess and diagnose Gender Dysphoria and then refer the patient to the identified medical care team.