T ransgender A merican
V eterans A ssociation

TransNation
Jacob Anderson-Minshall

7/13/2006

Navy vet, outspoken activist, ambivalent pre-op

San Diego’s Autumn Sandeen says she likes to whine. A lot. In fact, the board member of San Diego's Transgender Community Coalition and member of California's Transgender Equity Alliance — who also dedicates six hours a day to researching and posting items as a moderator on Yahoo’s transgender news group — sees her trans activism as stemming from her complaining nature.

“I don’t like things that should be challenged going unchallenged,” says the transwoman. “I just feel like I’ve got to do something. I’m good at writing but — with my disabilities — I’m not disciplined enough to do a column. The next best thing is writing letters to the editor. So that’s what I do. I’m a whiner.”

One of Sandeen’s many critical letters was addressed to Chris Crain, editorial director of Window Media (which publishes several LGBT regionals including the Washington Blade) who wrote an October 2005 editorial criticizing transgender rights activists for “trans-jacking” federal gay rights legislation by a “Trans or Bust” strategy that demanded “inclusion of gender identity” and insisted that “gay rights groups oppose even gay-inclusive legislation that failed to include trans protections."

Still angry, Sandeen argues no matter how much unsupportive gays want to distance themselves from trans people, they will not succeed because our enemies do not make those distinctions. “People outside the GLBT community cannot tell the difference between a drag queen, an effeminate gay man, a cross dresser and a transsexual. Try and separate us out, what happens is the external forces push us back together.”

Furthermore, Sandeen insists that social justice demands achieving justice for all. “If it’s justice for white gay men and not justice for transsexual women of color, then are we really fighting for equality? Or is it as they say in that book Animal Farm, ‘Some pigs are more equal than others’?”

Like many transpeople, Sandeen has been the victim of harassment, and like others, the abuse was directed at her because her attacker thought she was gay. Near the end of her 20-year career with the U.S. Navy and before she began her transition, Sandeen was investigated for allegedly violating the ban on gays in the military.

“They perceived I was an effeminate, gay male,” Sandeen explains. “[But] I’d never slept with a man in my entire life. So the only thing that identified me as gay was effeminate behavior.”

Sandeen, who’d been a Naval equal opportunity and sexual harassment instructor for seven years, was the wrong woman to dick with. She knew exactly what her rights were.

“I turned it around and said these guys violated ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and sexually harassed me.”

It worked. But not as well as she’d hoped. “Both of the people who sexually harassed me basically got the absolute minimum they could get while still being found guilty.”

Although it was a mixed victory, Sandeen says the experience set her on the path to activism and taught her a few critical lessons. “A policy doesn’t stop anything. You have to enforce the policy for [it] to be meaningful,” Sandeen says. “I understand now that if you can document, you can make things happen. If you can document a problem; if you can say this happened on when and this person witnessed it and you can put it all in writing and have it for later reference? That is a secret power.”

Once mistaken for a gay man, the 40-something Sandeen now calls herself a frustrated lesbian. She says that until she has genital surgery, a relationship may be out of the question, but she has mixed feelings about the procedure.

“My penis doesn’t bother me as a body part, in fact I like being able to stand up and pee — it’s really a plus. But the downside: as a sexual organ I am very uncomfortable with it. And I know that kind of makes me almost unique among my transgender friends because most of them are either happy they have a penis — M2Fs — they’re non-ops and happy or they’re pre-ops and they’re not happy. Me, I’m kind of in between. I’m going to be an op, I’m a pre-op I guess, but at the same time I’m not really sweating how long it takes me to get there. But at the same time love is out of the question for me. Well, not out of the question but I feel uncomfortable with relationship stuff. I’ve literally only had one partner in my entire life and I’m just not interested in sex. If I could have a relationship with someone that was just as intimate as a sexual relationship — but without sex — I would love that.”

Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall can be reached at jake@transnation.org.

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