Brown: Before Caitlyn Jenner, there was my roommate, Diane Schroer

SHARE Brown: Before Caitlyn Jenner, there was my roommate, Diane Schroer

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since my former college roommate Diane Schroer told me the story of how she was taking the federal government to court for discriminating against her as a transgender woman.

So much has changed in that time, including Caitlyn Jenner, once the world’s greatest male athlete.

I’ve got to believe in some teeny-tiny way that Diane Schroer’s courage paved the way for Caitlyn Jenner, just as others led the way for Schroer, even if Jenner has never heard her story.

OPINION

For those who’ve forgotten, Diane Schroer was still Dave Schroer from Oak Lawn, working a summer electrician job to pay for college, when we rented an apartment together my senior year at Northern Illinois University in 1976. That happens to be the same year Bruce Jenner won the Olympic decathlon.

Schroer was enrolled in ROTC and in training to become a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger. Unbeknownst to me or anybody else, she was also struggling with her male gender, as she had her entire life.

Schroer’s way of compensating for her inner turmoil was to be all the man she could be. She spent 25 years in the Army in Special Forces, serving in many of the world’s hot spots and later with a classified anti-terrorist operation at the Pentagon before retiring with the rank of colonel.

Then, Schroer was hired for a job as a terrorism analyst with the Congressional Research Service, only to see the job offer rescinded when she explained she would be reporting to work as Diane, not Dave.

Schroer sued, and she won, setting an important legal precedent for transgender individuals in the workplace and helping to transform the federal government’s handling of transgender employees.

For many in the transgender community, Schroer is a hero of the movement, not that she thinks of herself that way.

“A cog in the gear of society moving ever so slightly to a better place” is how she looks at it.

We spoke Friday for the first time since a gunman killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard two years ago. Schroer, who heard the shots that day, holds a civilian job as chief of staff in the Naval Systems Engineering Division.

Ten years ago, Schroer worried whether she would be able to find gainful employment again. Now, she’s like anybody else, wondering at age 58 how long she can continue to put in the long hours.

Schroer obviously has watched the Jenner situation unfold and admits to being slightly uncomfortable at times over the publicity but mostly concerned for Jenner’s welfare.

“When you’re in the middle of all that, it’s really hard to have perspective,” said Schroer, whose story went national on a smaller scale. “I hope Jenner has somebody she really trusts and is really good” to advise her.

Schroer believes Jenner is transitioning into a markedly changed world from the one she faced, a society that is more accepting, “not that there’s still not a lot of work to do.”

She attributes the progress in part to the advancement of gay marriage and maybe more so to the evolving attitudes of young people.

Schroer, who often speaks to college students, finds the reaction much less visceral than it was 10 years ago. Nobody on campus is telling her that her sex change is an “abomination.”

Schroer has a female partner. They’ve been together seven years now in their suburban Virginia home. They have a big white dog and “very tolerant neighbors,” most of whom know Schroer’s back story.

In four years with the Navy and before that working as a contractor for the FBI, her transgender identity “has never come up in conversation,” she said. “No one has ever even made a side comment.”

That’s progress.

Last November, Schroer was invited to West Point for the academy’s GLBT support group Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony, which drew a healthy turnout of cadets, faculty and family members.

That’s progress, too.

“Who’d a thunk it?” Schroer said of the West Point trip.

On the flipside, the Transgender Day of Remembrance is an annual observance honoring transgender persons who lost their lives in the previous year due to bigotry and violence. I joined Schroer for the Chicago ceremony many years ago.

Transgender individuals continue to be killed for being different.

“It’s pretty sad, actually,” Schroer said. “As much as things have changed, it still hasn’t stopped.”

Maybe that’s where Caitlyn Jenner can make a difference.

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