New transition for NAFB Airman

Senior Airman Irene Nelson, 57th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., poses for a portrait outside the headquarters of the Nevada Test and Training Range June 29, 2017. Nelson became the first Airman in Air Combat Command to have a gender transition recognized in official military records in February 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristin High/Released)

Senior Airman Irene Nelson, 57th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., poses for a portrait outside the headquarters of the Nevada Test and Training Range June 29, 2017. Nelson's gender transition was recognized in her official military records in February 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kristin High/Released)

Senior Airman Irene Nelson, 57th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and mother on the beach. Nelson became the first Airman in Air Combat Command to have a gender transition recognized in official military records in February 2017. (Courtesy photo

Senior Airman Irene Nelson, 57th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controller, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and mother on the beach. Nelson's gender transition was recognized in her official military records in February 2017. (Courtesy photo

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - I grew up in New Mexico as the youngest of three children and my favorite color is unicorn!

Hopefully, that made you laugh. If not my feelings won’t be too hurt.

I grew up in a very conservative Christian house-hold with two significantly older brothers who were 9 and 11 years older, so I was basically an only child.

I was bullied just like any other kid, but I always stood my ground. Surprisingly, things got easier for me in high school, which goes against the stereotypical norm. It was probably due to my school being relatively small, and I had the reputation for being funny and having a bubbly personality.

Growing up, I knew always liked men and was very effeminate. I was very competitive, but saw other girls as my competition, especially when it came to academics or boys. I always wanted what the girls had, but I was never quite able to grasp why I couldn’t have those things or be treated the same way.

My whole life I had heard that I was a gay man, a very effeminately gay man, so that’s all I ever thought I was and could be. Even my parents had issues with my sexual orientation (surprise), and they took me to a gay conversion seminar when I was about 15 years old.

For a while, I went back into the “closet” and devoted a lot of my time to volunteering at church. I spent endless hours studying the Bible and praying for God to give me clarity as to why I had these temptations or feelings. Why couldn’t he take them away? Nothing is as hard as your whole world telling you that you are wrong. Your existence is wrong.

When I was 19, I was hired at local cosmetic store offering a full line of beauty products on sheer luck and customer service skills. When I started, I had no idea there was a difference between eyeliner and mascara. Thanks to some wonderful people, I learned a lot and, not to toot my own horn, became an amazing makeup artist, with much of my work on multiple social media platforms.

In the midst of me finding satisfaction in something as feminine as makeup, I was still trying to progress as an adult by going to school and work. I was really struggling staying under my parent’s roof. My older brother saw my struggles and suggested I join the Air Force. He was in the Army, but he told me that it’s not only a great way to serve my country, but get away from my parents, learn a valuable skill, and go back to school without fear of loans or debts. This all sounded so wonderful, but I knew when I joined I’d have to hide my feelings. For the time being, it was worth it to be able to start my own life.  On July 10, 2012 I packed my bags and was on my way to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas for basic military training.

Even though I joined the military, I thought I could just be a drag queen since I couldn’t escape my love of makeup and beauty. However in the gay community, that’s almost looked upon as a disease. As YouTube progressed, I became enamored and fascinated by men who wore makeup. I wanted to be as strong and beautiful as them. I tried that, but it didn’t feel right. I had thought, “Well what if I was a girl?’, but I just kept thinking how scary and upside-down my whole world would turn.

A few years ago, I saw a social media video titled “I AM TRANSGENDER” by a very beautiful woman named Gigi Gorgeous, who had begun her transition. Like me, she was very effeminately gay, but she wasn’t afraid to wear makeup, nails, heels, or accessorize with purses, rings, or earrings. As the video progressed, I asked myself “Is this you? Are you this?” I couldn’t even begin to say the word transgender! “What are you thinking? That’s crazy!” I would yell at myself as these thoughts ran through my head.

Eventually, I got enough courage to go to a transgender support group at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center of Southern Nevada. There I met some wonderful people who have shared their life stories with me. I saw that living my life as a woman wasn’t so crazy, and it started to feel right. I had never truly been unhappy with my life, but I didn’t feel fully realized.

Most importantly, I didn’t feel like who I was supposed to be. When I admitted to myself that I was transgender, a wave of calm and utter happiness rushed over me. The answers to what I had been searching for finally arrived in my brain and I had enough courage to start this journey.

As I came to realize who I was, who I wanted to be, and how to become that, I had just few hurdles left. I had to deal with my career field as an air traffic controller, and not just work, the military is a lifestyle to which you have to be 100 percent committed.

Around June of 2015, there was a rumor that the transgender ban was going to be lifted. Not until June of 2016 did the Department of Defense finally issue guidance for transgender integration. I knew who I wanted to be, but to share that with my co-workers was a fear so daunting that I couldn’t speak at times. I opened up to my supervisor and my chief, and from there the ball started rolling.

I had my name legally changed in March 2016, and I wanted to start hormone therapy treatments. Due to being ATC, I am on flying status which affects the medications I am allowed to take. Hormones would take me off flying status, but for an unknown period of time.

I heard processes in the Air Force don’t always get implemented quickly, and this whole process is a testament to that statement. I understood this process was new for the Air Force, but I’m very impatient. Something I had been trying to deal with for years, was only days or weeks for others.

In December 2016, I went to Lackland AFB to see the Medical Multidisciplinary Team. The MMDT is a team of doctors that shape your overall transition plan. Not only did I meet with physicians, but I had to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

After all was said and done in Lackland, I was sent back to Nellis AFB, Nevada with hormones and a treatment plan while the rest was left up to my command. I was able to expedite my driver’s license, passport, and birth certificate to legally recognize my female gender marker. With the recommendation of the MMDT, my doctor at Flight Medicine, my squadron, group, wing and base commanders gave the recommendation to change my gender marker from male to female in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS).

The very first day of February 2017, I was not only able to be me, but be recognized as me. The relief I felt was so indescribable.

As mentioned before, I am a very impatient person. There were so many times I wanted to give up, but thanks to some amazing people in my life who didn’t let me.

I pursued and pushed to legally change my gender marker in DEERS and the Military Personnel Data System (MilPDS).  

As far as the medical side of things, I am currently awaiting a medical waiver to return to flying status, which would allow me to go back to controlling air traffic.

The moral of my story is: do not give up. If you ever feel like giving up, there are a multitude of resources around you like Mental Health or the Military Life Counselors at the Airman and Family Readiness Center. If you see me say hi, and yes I will answer all of the personal questions you want to know about me. If you don’t see me, shoot me an email or message online. I’m an open book. Finally, thanks for taking the time to learn about me and my journey.

Editorial note: Senior Airman Nelson's commentary was updated to reflect the first legal gender marker change in Air Combat Command took place in October 2016 by an Offutt AFB, Nebraska Airman.