If the military transgender movement needs a public face in Nebraska, veteran Scott Schneider is happy to offer his bearded mug.
Legally, Scott was Meghan upon enlisting in the Nebraska Air National Guard in January 2006. He transitioned to being a male starting in 2008, after informing his supervisors of his plans.
He left the Guard at the end of his six-year tour in part because it was hard to maintain the pretense of being a woman at work when he actually looked and felt like a man. He wanted to speak out in support of transgender rights, too — something he couldn’t do while serving in the military.
“It was definitely hard to walk away,” said Schneider, 32, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “When you’re in, you can’t speak out about anything, and I wanted to be able to.”
He grew up in Lincoln, in a neighborhood where nearly all of his playmates were boys.
“We’d have push-up contests, and they’d talk about how strong I was,” Schneider said. “When I was 6 or 8, I wanted to run around with no shirt on and play football. I had no idea that wasn’t OK.”
He said his tomboyishness caused him no trouble at school, but it did cause conflict with his parents.
“They were, like, ‘Why aren’t you wearing more dresses?’ ” he recalled.
After high school, Schneider said, he suffered through bouts of depression over his gender conflict. He worked a series of dead-end jobs and spent a listless stretch in college. He saw himself as gay before reading online about transgender people. He knew he finally had a name for what he was going through.
Schneider joined the Guard primarily for the paycheck and to make money for college. The military life appealed to him, and he wanted to be a police officer. He didn’t spend much time worrying whether his secret would come out.
“I was in this initial I-can-ignore-what-this-is phase,” he said. “I knew I’d only be in the military for six years, and I figured I could get through it.”
He trained for the security police and worked full time as a gate guard for the 155th Air Refueling Wing at the Lincoln Air National Guard Base.
He had been attending a local support group for transgender people, whose members helped him decide to begin living as a man. In 2007 he saw a therapist to get the required medical support for his plan.
“There’s no switch that flips, there’s no sign from God,” Schneider said. “It’s just a gut feeling.”
A lawyer from OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network sent a note to Schneider’s unit commander explaining the situation. Soon after, Schneider got a call from his chief master sergeant. He was too afraid to answer.
“I was terrified,” he said. “That was the most stressful part of the whole thing, because it could have gone any direction.”
But Schneider’s chain of command supported him. The chief master sergeant said he would see what he could do to help him stay with the unit.
“He didn’t guarantee me anything. He just said, ‘Don’t panic,’ ” Schneider recalled. “The main concern was whether it affected the unit.”
Schneider’s decision did prompt some discussion at senior levels of the air wing, said Col. Wendy Johnson, commander of the 155th Mission Support Group.
Johnson — who was then the wing’s executive officer — said the unit’s legal department could find no reason to exclude Schneider.
“We found there wasn’t a legal precedent, at least in the Air Force,” she said. “There was nothing prohibiting Sgt. Schneider from proceeding with the transition.”
Over the next several years, Schneider took hormone injections that deepened his voice and beefed up his physique. He developed facial hair, which he shaved three or four times a day to avoid a five o’clock shadow.
He paid for breast-reduction surgery with a military bonus and underwent a hysterectomy during the gap between two monthly Guard drills. The surgeries cost him minimal time off from his Guard duties.
Johnson said she didn’t see Schneider’s medical situation any differently from those that might affect her other airmen.
“The military has in place procedures to do with a pregnancy or a broken wrist or a sprained knee,” she said.
Despite the changes, Schneider said he maintained the necessary pretense of being “Meghan,” though he was secretly thrilled when people called him “sir.”
He avoided showing his military ID to people. He waited until the end on the days of random drug tests — which, according to military protocol, had to be observed — and would whisper quick explanations to the monitor.
“I kind of found my way around it,” he said. “I was living this weird double life.”
If the members of his unit guessed his secret, they kept quiet.
“Everybody I knew in the military, they were genuinely nice about it,” he said. “When you’re actually doing the job, nobody really cares.”
Johnson said Schneider was a stellar airman, which contributed to the success of the unit’s unusual experiment.
“It certainly could have played out very differently,” she said.
Schneider stayed with the Guard until January 2012. Now he is studying biology and psychology and works at UNL’s LGBTQA Resource Center, which supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning people and their allies at the university.
Schneider and fellow Lincoln resident Wes Staley have started an outreach group to speak publicly about transgender matters. He also has joined SPART*A, a national organization working to change the military’s policy on transgender military service.
“Most people I know don’t realize we still have this battle,” Schneider said.
He bought a house a few blocks from the Lincoln home of his parents, who he said struggle with his transition.
“They still call me ‘she’ and by my female name,” Schneider said. “It’s irritating, but it’s not a deal breaker. They’re still my family.”