Charlotte Clymer is an activist, writer, and Twitter savant. She’s a veteran who served with the U.S. Army from 2005 to 2012, and she serves currently as the press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil rights organization. Charlotte is one of the most prominent trans activists in the country, and I wanted to learn more about how her personal experiences with poverty, the U.S. military, and being transgender have shaped the person she has become today. I’ve learned so much through our friendship over the years, and I’ve learned even more in this conversation about the challenges she’s encountered, and how and why she remains active in seeking justice and civil rights for all.
Simran Jeet Singh: Tell me little bit about your spiritual formation. Was that something you thought about as a child?
Charlotte Clymer: I went to church when I was a kid with a friend a few times. But I would say for the bulk of my adolescence, I didn't do it at all. I realized though, as time went on, that I needed that sense of community. I believed in God from an early age. I don't think there's ever been a time when I didn't believe in God. It wasn't until I turned 18 and it was pretty clear that my family life was in shambles at that point. I was also struggling in the closet trying to figure out what the hell is going on with me. Why do I have this persistent need to be a woman? I think God was a source of solace for me early on and over time the evolution within my spiritual health has been reconciling.
Singh: As somebody who identifies as transgender, what does it feel like to be a part of the community or even to embrace a community that at the same time rejects or marginalizes you as a human?
Clymer: I spent 30 years asking God to essentially take away my authenticity, authenticity that she gifted me and I'm never going to get that time back. So, part of my journey now is trying to make people see that this isn't black and white. There are trans people who draw strength from different faith systems, whether it be Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Sikhism or Islam or no faith system at all — folks who were agnostic, atheist, or have beliefs that fall outside of an organized religion. All of these are valid. What I think is particularly destructive is when we place these value assessments on people, based on our feeling, that they're going about navigating life in the wrong way in regard to religion or spiritual beliefs. That's counterproductive.
Singh: Tell me about how you got to the U.S. military. How and why did you decide to enlist?
Clymer: It's so complicated. Growing up, I loved the idea of serving my country and I didn't know what capacity that would take. So, after high school graduation, I remember being in Austin and working this part-time job downtown and I came home one night and the death toll in Iraq had just hit a thousand. I've disagreed with the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. I still believe it was completely unlawful. At the same time, I felt this desire to serve. I felt bad that there were 18- and 19-year-old folks my age who were fighting in Iraq and I was here at home not really doing anything in the way of public service.
The second thing, and this is pretty crude and critical too, is that I felt joining the military would cleanse me of my desire to be a woman. I was wrestling with the anxiety of being in the closet and I didn't know how to get rid of it. I thought if I joined the military and go into infantry, some residual effect has got to be to erase whatever this desire is within me.
Singh: What was your guide during your time in the military?
Clymer: In basic training, I was surrounded by mostly folks who joined because they just want to f*** s**t up — yes, they love their country, but a lot of them were there because they just want to go to war and shoot people. I mean that's just real. So, that self-righteous core within me made me resist the troubling elements of basic training. It stayed with me throughout my service. There’s a difference between healthy male camaraderie, which is perfectly fine, and toxicity in male-centered environments. This was very toxic. It was things like doing drugs off duty, like hard drugs. There were people who sexually assaulted women in my unit and who got away with it. There were incidents of violence within the unit and that were kind of thrown under the rug. There was unabashed racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. And it wasn't held accountable. And that was really shocking to me because I thought the military was this rigid structure of discipline, in which folks followed the rules. I think many units do operate that way because they have good commanders, but that particular unit did not.
I had public school teachers who took an interest in me and made a positive impression on me. Without them, I wouldn't have been as understanding of race relations, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
I wasn't a perfect kid. I'm certainly not perfect now. I've made mistakes along the way and learn from them. But it really cemented this belief that: no, racism is wrong every time, misogyny is wrong, anti-LGBTQ sentiments are wrong, and I need to speak out against them. That really stayed with me throughout training.
Singh: When you came out of duty and you entered into the world, did you feel like things were different culturally? Did you feel more people who you could connect with or did you still feel as isolated?
Clymer: I felt pretty isolated. When I was medically retired from the military, it was really heartbreaking. So, I came back here to D.C. and I realized that, I didn't have any outlook because my outlook had been staying in the military for 20 years, retire, and then maybe go to law school.
That dream was suddenly gone. So, I just started exploring, and part of that exploration was writing. I started writing a lot. I would write just my thoughts on equality, whether it was women's rights or LGBTQ rights or racial equality, very baby activists’ stuff. Just trying to elaborate these beliefs within myself and get to the point where I could be more empathetic and nuanced toward others in a logical way.
I remember writing this blog about why are we ashamed of our women heroes? The crux of it was it's perfectly acceptable for a young girl to look up to a male person or male celebrity or a male politician. However, it's frowned upon for a young boy to look up to a woman in the public square. A boy with a Hillary Clinton poster or for that matter, a conservative woman on his wall, was probably going to be frowned upon and viewed with quite a bit of skepticism by the adults around him. I sent it to HuffPost and eventually they published it and it went viral. Ever since, I've just been writing about these things.
Singh: What is your vision for the future? What do you hope to see?
Clymer: I really want to see a liberal movement or a progressive movement or however you want to characterize it. I want to see that done. Unapologetically. You interviewed Congresswoman Omar recently. She and her colleagues, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, Congresswoman Presley, and Congresswoman Tlaib represent the future. I may not agree with them on everything, but how refreshing it is to see four women in national politics refuse to apologize for progressive values? … When people are suffering, when they're in pain, you don't haggle over the price of alleviating that pain. That's one of those things that I think should be completely nonpartisan. But yet, we're being told that arguing over suffering is somehow a “both sides” issue. It’s not. The solution is that we address suffering. I think that represents the future.