Originally published June 5, 2005

 

Each time I talk to Diane Schroer it gets a little bit easier to accept what’s happened to my old roommate Dave, a little less worrisome about whether I’ve slipped up and used the wrong name or called her “man” as in “thanks, man” or “hey, man.”

That’s not to say it didn’t come as a shock at first or that it still doesn’t have its awkward moments or that I don’t think there’s anything unusual about a man becoming a woman.

But she’s convinced me it’s the right thing for her, and that has helped make me aware that this is one of those areas of human experience about which I had previously chosen to remain willfully ignorant.

OPINION

That’s why I’m hoping you’ll stick with me long enough to hear me out on this again today — and occasionally in the future — when the natural inclination might be to look away to avoid seeing something that we might prefer not to know. People in Diane’s situation could use a little more understanding from the rest of us. There are more of them out there than we realize, many suffering silently with their tortured thoughts.

How the story began

If you missed Thursday’s column, it was about how Diane, a 25-year Army veteran and Special Forces commander, is suing the federal government for sex discrimination. Up until a few months ago, Diane was known as Dave, which is who she was when she attended Richards High School in Oak Lawn — and when we shared an apartment at Northern Illinois University for the 1976-77 school year.

Last fall, the Congressional Research Service offered Dave, 48, a job as a research analyst on terrorism, then rescinded the offer when Dave disclosed he was in the process of making the medical transition to Diane. ACLU lawyers filed suit Thursday in the District of Columbia on behalf of Diane, who now lives in Virginia.

It had been a couple of years since I’d heard from Dave, but my curiosity didn’t go on high alert when I received an e-mail in early April from “D.J. Schroer,” one of Dave’s nicknames, requesting my current address. A letter arrived at home a week or two after that. The first few paragraphs were full of foreboding with a warning that he was about to disclose something I might find extremely disturbing. He said the information might soon become well-known, and he wanted me to hear it from him first.

My God, I wondered. What did he do? Sell secrets to the Chinese?

US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Headquarters, MacDill AFB FL, in July 2003. Left to right, Marine Colonel Jeff Brady, Dave Schroer, Air Force Colonel Cliff Bray, Marine Colonel Hank Foshee, and Navy SEAL Capt. Jim Coleman.
Photo by Chai Gallahun courtesy of Diane Schroer

That led to a strange mixture of relief and stunned amazement as I went on to read that after many years of uncertainty and inner discomfort, he had decided to live his life as a woman and had already begun doing so.

He wrote about the burden of shame and guilt he had been carrying his whole life and about how he was confident he was now on the right path. He also disclosed that he and his wife of 16 years were in the process of divorce. I knew they didn’t have kids.

I responded fairly quickly with an e-mail to “D.J.” (I couldn’t bring myself to use “Diane” yet) offering reassurances that the news, while stunning, did not upset or offend me and saying pretty much what I wrote Thursday, which is that I had always known Dave as someone who knew his own mind. I promised to be in touch soon. It really didn’t bother me. I know who I am.

But it was a couple of weeks before I screwed up my nerve to call and was relieved when I got a recording that allowed me to just leave a message. I think I was afraid because I didn’t know quite what to expect.

Early the next week, I answered the phone and found myself talking to somebody with a quiet woman’s voice who said her name was Diane. It took a couple seconds to register.

“Oh! Diane,” I said, and each time I’ve said it since, it gets a little easier, and when I slip up, she doesn’t seem to mind. Diane asked me to tell her story.

Since Thursday, I’ve heard from several other buddies of Dave’s going back to high school and college who expressed support because they knew him as a quality person, something who’s not dependent on any feature of his anatomy or how he dresses. I haven’t heard from anybody in the military, but Diane says her friends there have been very supportive, too.

Thoughts tortured him

We’ve talked several times in recent weeks, and the most painful part is hearing how Diane, as Dave, grew up with thoughts always clouded by the sense that there was something wrong with him because he should have been a girl. He had those thoughts every day of his life — on the playground, in college, in combat — until he decided to become one.

Doctors say transsexuals are born with a disconnect between their bodies and the gender identity in their brains. It is a recognized medical phenomenon. A large number of individuals with this condition end up killing themselves, possibly more than go through with the expensive medical procedures Diane has started.

On the chance that Diane’s story can inspire more of them to hang in there and shed the guilt, I plan to keep telling it.