From a whisper to a roar: the trans officers forging their way forward in the defence force

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These two transwomen are on the forefront of a radical shift in military culture as it becomes more diverse and accepting.

In 2013, the military ban on women fighting on the frontline was lifted.

However, there already was one woman in a combat role: Squadron Leader Catherine Humphries, who had gender reassignment surgery in 2012.

“It was almost by a loophole; I transitioned before, so by the time the restrictions were lifted I’d already been doing the job,” she said.

“I’m still doing the job”.

SQRLDR Humphries is one of the people at the vanguard of what has been a rapid cultural shift in the Australian Defence Force. Before 2010, ADF policy dictated that employees would be fired for transitioning gender. But then a landmark case ruled that the army lift its ban on transgender employees. At that point, it was the last government department to fire employees for transitioning.

Being able to start her life as a female was a lifeline to SQNLDR Humphries.

“The pressure it just builds up. You get depressed, you get anxious, you have issues just coping and operating,” she said. “The whole cycle of hiding. It got deeper, it got harder and I wanted it just to stop.”

When the policy was changed, Humphries immediately began the process and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

“After thirty years of hiding, to drop the façade was very scary,” she recollects.

Army Major Harding also went through gender reassignment after the ban was lifted. A nursing officer in the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corp, she had worked in Canada, and the US before settling in Australia.

She still lives with her two children and her wife, Dorraine, who now refer to each other as”platonic best friends”.

“We’re just really great together and you don’t need to have an intimate sexual relationship to be partners,” said Dorraine.

Catherine and Donna and at least 15 other open transgender officers are openly serving in the Australian Defence Force.

“There are more people out there I'm sure that are still finding their way and finding their decision to come forward and start talking,” said Catherine.

Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, Vice Chief Of the Australian Defence Force, describes the decision as leading to one of the biggest cultural shifts in the ADF’s history, “absolutely massive”.

Griggs understands that this shift is far from over, but affirms that the organization is committed to seeing it through, pointing to the continued existence of the cultural change program which reinforced the need for diversity and inclusion.

Australia is now one of only 18 countries that allows transgender people to serve in the military.

Said Griggs: “I think the acceptance of the LGBQI community is pretty good.”

Watch SQNLDR Humphries, Army Major Harding and their families talk about what it’s like to come out as transgender, both in the military and in their homes.