By Emily Starbuck Gerson

In honor of Transgender Day of Visibility, which takes place annually today (March 31), and as we mark the final day of Women’s History Month, we wanted to highlight the powerful story of Army Major Kara Corcoran. She has consistently broken barriers for both women and trans people in the military, and we hope you’re inspired by our special interview with her. 

Since early childhood, Major Kara Corcoran had a strong sense that her sex assigned at birth wasn’t right. She was born in 1986, and growing up, she didn’t encounter any language that helped explain why she felt more like a girl on the inside, so she hid those feelings.

It wasn’t until college where she first learned that transgender people exist and that transitioning was a possibility. But despite this discovery, Corcoran decided to join the Army and answer her calling to serve in the infantry during a time of war. At the time, trans people weren’t allowed to serve in the military, but it didn’t matter anyway, since women still weren’t permitted in combat roles. 

So Corcoran did her best to keep those feelings at bay, and she commissioned as an Army officer 14 years ago. She excelled at her infantry job, which took her on two deployments to Afghanistan. She also married her wife, a fellow soldier.

By around 2015, Corcorcan found it increasingly excruciating to hide her gender identity and dysphoria. The same year, women were given the right to serve in combat roles, and the next year, the Obama administration lifted the trans service ban. Those two developments finally gave Corcoran an opportunity to transition and keep her infantry job, but she and her wife were about to start a family, so she didn’t want to rock the boat. 

Then, in July 2017, President Trump announced over tweets that trans people would no longer be able to serve, and in early March 2018, it was announced a new trans ban was coming soon. With twins on the way, Corcoran didn’t want to upheave her family life, but she knew if she didn’t come out now, she may lose her chance. 

She took the risk and obtained the gender dysphoria diagnosis required just in time before the second ban took effect (which was fortunately removed by President Biden in January 2021). While Corcoran could finally live and serve authentically, it resulted in marital separation, and she had to cope with unsupportive colleagues. 

Corcoran eventually found more acceptance, especially as she moved into her current leadership role working with a younger, more open-minded generation. She feels a huge sense of gratitude to the women who secured her right to serve in combat, as she’s become the first and only female or trans person in combat arms (infantry or armor) at the rank of major. 

She’s also the first female operations officer, and now executive officer, of the Army in an armored battalion out of Ft. Bliss, Texas. As she moves through the ranks, Corcoran knows she’s under intense scrutiny, but this just motivates her to be at the top of her game and blaze even more trails for women in arms. When we spoke for this interview, Corcoran was in Korea wrapping up a nine-month deployment. 

Modern Military Association of America: When did you know you were trans, and what was your coming out like?

Kara Corcoran: I knew I felt like a girl as far back as I could remember. I knew that when I was a child, and even as a teenager, but I grew up in an Irish-Italian Catholic town in Massachusetts, and I just didn’t think being a girl was possible. 

As a kid, I’d secretly explore my identity, whether it was with makeup or painting my fingernails, but I didn’t think it was possible. I grew up playing football, and I found a niche with wrestling. I was a wrestling captain in high school. It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized it was actually possible to be trans and that there are actually medical procedures and hormones. I was like, oh no, did I mess something up? 

Then I went to military college, Norwich University, and the idea that I’d ever be able to transition just left my mind. I was thinking that if I’m going to be an infantryman in the Army and do all this hooah stuff, it’s not possible. Women weren’t allowed in the infantry then, trans people couldn’t serve, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) still existed.

When I was deployed in Afghanistan, that’s when DADT was repealed. It was a very eventful time in Afghanistan. When I got back, that’s when I started exploring myself on my own for once. That’s when I was past the subconsciousness of knowing that I was trans. 

But I still knew I couldn’t serve, there was no way, because there were no women in the infantry and this is the profession I love. Plus, being trans still wasn’t allowed. 

MMAA: Did you have awareness at the time when DADT was repealed that it didn’t include trans people?

KC: It didn’t cross my mind, because at the end of the day, I couldn’t serve as a woman in the infantry, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. 

I had married my wife before I transitioned, but it was the most awful timing. In 2015, I was freaking out because I mentally and emotionally hit a point where I knew I needed to transition. The initial trans service ban first lifted in 2016, but in that same timeframe, my wife was getting out of the Army so we could have babies, so the timing wasn’t right for me. 

I was trying to convince myself and everyone else I was fine, but in my mind, I was all over the place, spinning around in circles, thinking, what do I do?

I felt like there was nobody to talk to, nobody who understood my situation. There’s also the prideful myth of, I can’t go to behavioral health, they’ll think I’m crazy. We moved to Georgia, where I was an instructor at Ft. Benning.

My wife was pregnant. It was the beginning of 2018, and I’d just found SPARTA. I’d been in contact with other trans service members for more than a few years, maybe since 2015, but most of them had gotten out. 

Then it was like bam, here’s SPARTA, and I learned there’s an entire group of trans people in the military. I felt like, “There are people like me? No way! I thought it was a myth!” 

My twin girls were going to be born two months later, in March of 2018. I started having the conversation with my wife again, and we agreed I wasn’t going to come out or do anything until the girls were born. But it was in March when the Trump administration came out with the memorandum that the new trans ban was coming soon. 

It was a Friday afternoon and I immediately freaked out, because they gave a very short window to get a diagnosis before a ban went back in place. Monday morning I walked into the troop medical center and I was like, I need to talk to a doctor or something, I need to get a medical diagnosis. That was one of the scariest moments of my life. 

For me, I already knew that I was way past the point of no return, in the sense of, I knew that there was no way I was going to continue to live life if I didn’t transition at that point. I was already going crazy. I told myself, there’s no way I can do another 10 years in the Army not as myself. 

Here I am on the Georgia/Alabama border trying to just get medical stuff done. It was hard for me, and I was a senior captain at the time; I can’t even imagine a specialist or private or younger NCO trying to come out. It was not fun. 

MMAA: So you got the diagnosis in time?

KC: I was able to get it just in time before the ban. I got my diagnosis just before my daughters were born. It was the worst possible timing ever. 

My wife and I ended up separating later in 2018 and have gone through a few periods of reconciliation and separation since, and sadly this has meant times where I don’t see our daughters. My empathy for her situation is boundless.

MMAA: What was it like coming out and transitioning at work in the Army?

KC: It was difficult in general. I had very good support from the leaders that I trusted. They worked with me throughout my transition, while I served as an instructor for the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course, mainly for infantry and armor officers. 

I did that in Building 4, which is a historic building that’s been around forever for the infantry. A lot of high-ranking guys work there; it’s a 99% male environment, many my age or older. 

While the leadership supported me, there were a million hiccups. For example, I would wear the same outfit as everyone else to exercise — the shorts we called “ranger panties” and a cut-off T-shirt. The only difference now is I now had a sports bra on underneath, but otherwise, I was wearing the same thing my students would wear for exercise.

I would change at the office and then go play sports, go on a run or to the gym. I remember one time I was brought into our sergeant major’s office and he was like, “What is this I’m hearing about you wearing a tanktop and daisy dukes strutting around the HQ building?” But come on, that’s not what was happening at all; I’m wearing the same thing as everyone else.

It was instances like that that made the transition difficult in the beginning. Several people asked if I was going to stay in the Army. When I said yes, they would ask, “Are you gonna reclass to a different job or different MOS?” When I asked why, they would say, “I mean, you’re in the infantry.” I would respond with, “What does that have to do with anything?”

They’d ask if I thought it would be hard. When I asked why, they would say, “You’ll be a woman in the infantry.” Again, I would respond, “So what?” There are other women in the infantry making it happen, so why can’t I? So there were all these questions, all these issues that people constantly brought up that were just preposterous. It was frustrating. 

It can also be awkward. I’ve been in 14 years now, and when people see I have a ranger tab, they ask when I graduated. I try not to say 14 years, because women couldn’t be in the infantry back then, and it just raises questions. I politely just say, “A long time ago.” The 100 women who have now graduated are the true superheroes.

I remember I was only a year into my transition when I went to the Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth. Here I am walking in as the first infantry woman or commandant’s woman into the schoolhouse. Instructors in the elevator would be like, “Congrats on getting your ranger tab!” Or, “Oh my god you’ve seen combat as a woman in the infantry!” You can see all these guys who retired from the Army like 20 years ago, their minds were melting and exploding. That was the first couple weeks. 

After that, everybody knew or had figured it out, and not everyone was kind about it. I went from three different organizations that were mainly run by older generations, and I had to break down walls just to establish myself. It wasn’t until I actually became the executive officer of an armored battalion where everybody was finally like, hey, welcome to the team, roger that, got it.

It was like day and night. Everyone who had an issue with it were people who’d already either surpassed or left the organization. When I got to this current organization, where I’m not teaching, I’m not going to school, where I’m actually doing my job — it’s been a dream. There were initially some people who were struggling with it, like asking how they should talk to me or address me. I’m a girl, hi, it’s ma’am, it’s easy.

It’s crazy because I participated in our Army transgender training, and afterward, a friend told me several officers didn’t know until then that I was trans. I was shocked those platoon leaders didn’t know I was trans. Affirmation! But then…dammit, I outed myself! 

It’s hard because I’m in the infantry in combat arms units, so it instantly raises the question just because of my job, but it continuously becomes a non-issue as infantry and armor women rise through the ranks. I want to have a normal life, but I’ve accepted that this won’t be the case. However, the military is extremely accepting and paves the way for society. As time goes on, it will get better and better until it’s completely normal. 

MMAA: Have you found that rank or age make a big difference in how you’re treated?

KC: If you look on a spectrum, where I was working when I transitioned, and then went to school and went to another HQ, I was somewhere between 10 to 30 years behind the people that I was working around. 

When I got into the organization I’m in now, there’s only around five people older than me, and everybody else is lower-ranking or younger. The average age of the soldiers in our organization is 23 years old. 

You might have some people with issues with it, depending on their parents or where they grew up, or maybe a different culture. But where I am now, the 23-year-old person in the military doesn’t care if you’re LGBTQ+. That generation simply does not care. They grew up with it, they’ve been exposed to it. It is normal, and they only care if you can do your job.  

Dealing with older generations requires a balance of empathy and education. Many will disagree with this thought process, but it has worked for me. It’s not one’s fault that they were raised and/or conditioned to think that transgender people are wrong based off of old science or culture. I take time to understand and have the conversation with those that I am around and then try to educate. It’s only frustrating when you’ve already helped educate and they willfully remain ignorant. 

Time and education continue to help those from different backgrounds, the emotionally immature, and older generations. It is the process of osmosis of transgender and LGBTQ+ service members who do their job well that helps change the military culture more than anything.

MMAA: What was it like when you learned women were allowed to be in infantry?

KC: It wasn’t until late 2015 that women were allowed in infantry or armor. It wasn’t until two women, Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver, graduated in 2015 when the military said, “OK, so if women can pass ranger school, they can be in the infantry.” Well yeah, duh, women are strong!

I don’t think we understand quite contextually how much they did pave the way for us as well. It was also used as an argument for trans service; why do you care about gender if women are graduating ranger school and in combat roles? 

I couldn’t do it without all the strong women who are entering service and coming up through the ranks right now. The 100th woman graduated ranger school this month and we are seeing that at least one is graduating every class. Standards have not changed; women still face the stigmatized adversity and continue to persevere with strength and grit.  

One of the more amazing parts of my military experience is being brought into the fold of infantry and armor women. They are some of the strongest women you’ve ever met. For them to not only ask you for advice but then to be a part of their team — I’m just humbled. 

They’re all very likeminded, like any other infantrymen. You just sit there and step back and think, I can’t believe women haven’t been afforded this opportunity from the get go, because they really are that strong. And in many ways stronger than men because of what they had to go through to get through to get where they are now. 

MMAA: Did you have fears about whether you’d be accepted in that elite group as a trans woman?

KC: Yes. I always worked out; I started triathlons in 2012, and I previously lifted and wrestled, so fitness has always been a part of me. When I threw on the female dress uniform for the first time with the skirt and the jacket, and there was a blue cord, which is the cord we have for the infantry, I looked in the mirror and it hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had this sense of, “I’m gonna pin major soon, and I’m gonna be the only field grade officer that’s infantry or armor that’s female — holy crap, I need to go to the gym and change my lifestyle!” 

Because if I’m not in the best shape I can be, if I’m not hanging with all the boys, for one, I’m not doing my job as an infantryman. But two, I’m letting all these hundreds of women down who are trying to make a name for themselves. If I walk into a room and I’m weak or out of shape and say, “Hi, I’m an infantry officer,” people will think, who the hell are you, get out of here. You haven’t earned your keep. 

Or they’ll think, “That’s an infantry officer? A female infantry officer?” So when that moment happened, that’s when I immediately started lifting legs like crazy, because I knew that was the most important part of the job. 

I had stopped lifting my upper body for several years before my transition, and I didn’t really do it for the first year and half of transition either. Now I’m at the point where I’m working out my upper body all the time, but still significantly weaker due to hormones. 

I was learning how to chain down tanks onto a railcar today. I lifted up a chain, as other guys were grabbing it and I was like, ahh I shouldn’t have lifted shoulders and chest the last two days! This is awful! I was so upset with myself because I knew that I needed to stay in tip-top shape. 

I’ve run ultramarathons, mountain biking in El Paso, play in the Women’s National Football Conference with the Denver Bandits, and done all sorts of fitness escapades over the last four years. I’m lifting stronger with my legs than I ever had as a man, because I never lifted legs as a man. All of my strength I have is as a woman, not as a guy. 

MMAA: So for your type of officer, there’s a certain expectation for physical shape and strength?

KC: Oh yeah. The infantry is the first front line of troops, so if you’re not the strongest that you can be, if you’re not constantly preparing yourself for the worst day of your life, then you’re failing to do your job. Because that’s ultimately what combat is, for infantrymen: it’s the hardest day. 

No matter what I sound like, no matter what I look like, at the end of the day, I am an infantrywoman. And I have to maintain and work, just like everybody else, but I have to work twice as hard now to maintain a level of fitness that brings me on par with my peers. If I worked as hard as my peers right now, I’d be way behind them. So I work harder.  

MMAA: How are things for you now that it’s several years into transition?

KC: I find it absolutely amazing and interesting that me being in a position where I actually do my job has been probably the most affirming thing as a female and as a trans person.

Since I’m doing my job that I trained for, no longer instructing or in school, it doesn’t take long for anybody to question it anymore. I don’t know how much people care anymore, since everyone I work with sees me and treats me as a woman. All my interactions are very positive now. 

There are people who still struggle as they’re breaking through cultural issues or biases, but it doesn’t take them long. Because when everyone sees that everyone else is OK with it, and when everyone sees you’re just doing your job, nobody cares. 

I’m part of an organization that’s really amazing, but it’s probably easily one of the best experiences of my life being able to be second in command of an armored battalion. We’re one of the most lethal forces on the face of this earth. For me, it’s been pretty damn good and I continue to look forward to the future.