T ransgender A merican
V eterans A ssociation
Vietnam Vet Finds Peace Through Transitioning
Now the subject of a new Barbara Rosenthal short film, Finding Peace—which premiered at last month’s New York Image Out Festival—Carney jokes, “Fifteen minutes sums up my whole life. It’s basically struggling with two key issues, my gender issue and post traumatic stress from Vietnam and trying to come to terms… and be at peace.”
Carney admits that she was originally disappointed that the focus of the documentary was her peace activism instead of her years of transgender activism.
“First I didn’t like the direction she was going,” Carney says of Rosenthal. “She ended up dealing just with issues from Vietnam. In the last couple of years I kind of switched gears. I’ve been very active in the trans community and trans rights and now I’ve been much more active with Veterans for Peace against the Iraqi war. She kind of went more in that [latter] direction.”
Carney says she’s uncomfortable with the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq and the way Veterans are treated if they don’t come back “waving a flag and saying the party line.”
As a “strange little effeminate boy,” Carney says she expected to be turned away from the military. “I was five foot five inches tall as a senior in high school and weighed about a 110 pounds. I wore these coke rim glasses”
But she wasn’t. After an argument with her father, and hoping to influence her placement, Carney joined the Army rather than wait to be drafted.
“It wasn’t so much to prove something to him,” Carney recalls. “It may have been to prove something to myself.” Plus she added, “I believed we were spreading democracy, we were the good guys.”
Carney became a mail clerk stationed at a firebase on the Laos border, the 19-year-old transported orders from headquarters to the front, saw her share of violence, and narrowly escaped death. “There was incident where we got ambushed. A truck in front of us hit a landmine. That was one of the most traumatic events and I just was never the same after that. I was crying all the time and shaking and I started to do a lot of drugs.”
After the war Carney returned to Boston where she “ended up doing too much drugs and drinking and got raped a couple of times” while doing sex work. She left that life for a 25-year marriage, during which she had three kids but was in and out of VA hospitals for posttraumatic stress disorder. Her lifelong struggle with gender issues continued.
When her marriage fell apart, Carney got sober and finally admitted her transgender identity. She had sex reassignment surgery just nights before her 51st birthday. Carney then moved to Florida where she jokes, “At first I was going to do that stealth thing. That lasted about a day and a half.”
Instead the lesbian-identified Carney co-founded and became Executive Director of the Florida Transgender Equality Project. She also explored her creative side, writing (and performing) the two-act play I Was Always Me; penning a column, "Perspectives from a Trans-Woman", as well as her 2004 memoir, Purple Hearts and Silver Stars: Poems, Rants, Essays and Short Stories Direct From a Trans-Women’s Soul.
Carney says she recently returned to Boston after six years in Florida’s panhandle to be closer to family and because she’s “tired of the hate and the politics” of the southern state. But there was another reason as well. While Carney says she experienced a great level of acceptance and tolerance, there was one area she felt excluded.
“What few dates or relationships I had were all with women who identified as straight or bisexual. Every single lesbian-identified woman that I asked out over five years said no—quite adamantly. Not one ever asked me out—which to me is a statement.” For example, when she asked out a lesbian friend she’d know for several years, Carney says she was stunned at the response.
“She looked at me and she said, ‘You know I’m a lesbian. I don’t date men.’ It was almost instantaneous that she realized what she said. But it was what she was thinking. I honestly think… you can equate it with racism… ‘Some of my best friends are black, but I wouldn’t date one.’”
Carney believes gays and lesbians still have a lot to learn about the distinction between transsexuals, cross dressers, and drag performers.
“I can go anywhere I want and people treat me like a woman,” Carney says. “Then I go to [Provincetown] and they’re always asking me if that’s a wig and sticking their hands up my dress. It’s like the whole concept in P-town is [that] transgender people are just part of the show. I just can’t stand drag shows. I think it belittles transgender people. But it’s such a part of our culture, and ‘transgender’ as a term is such a broad range… that if we want real community, we’ve got to stick together.”
Still, she says, she’s very hopeful that things are changing with the next generation.
“I take great solace with the younger generation,” Carney says. “I love going to the GenderCrash in Boston. I invite the term genderqueer. I like it. And most people from my generation don’t like that term. [They say,] ‘I’m not transgender, I’m a transsexual …and it gets into so much bullshit and politics and we end up fighting amongst ourselves. We’ve got bigger issues—like classism within our own community.”
Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He co-authors the Blind Eye mystery series premiering in March 2007 with Blind Curves.
© 2006 Jacob Anderson-Minshall; All Rights Reserved.