By Jamie Rhodes
WICHITA - Denise Johnson’s story is a bitter-sweet one containing memories of confusion; but ultimately acceptance and the willingness to keep living as who she always was.
Growing up in a military family, the oldest of five kids, she always enjoyed hanging out with her mom cooking, but anytime her father caught her in the kitchen, he’d take her to the garage to work on other “manly things.” She did the things she thought she was expected to do, all the while, just feeling different. “As far back as six I knew I was different, but didn’t know how or why,” she said.
“I did what I was supposed to do. I had the wife, the family, drank beer, built things, and did the guy thing,” Johnson said. After getting laid off as a welder in the early 80s, she enlisted in the Air Force as Security Police (now known as Security Forces) and six years later got her rank as a Tech. Sergeant (TSgt.)
She completed several tours of deployment and received numerous decorations during Desert Storm/Shield. She deployed with the bombers and missiles. “We [also] deployed with the F117 Stealth Fighter. Back then to even say ‘F117 Stealth’ was classified … I don’t know where we were. We were in the desert. There was nothing there. … We went to St. Thomas and watched Cuban prisoners for a couple weeks then sat on an airstrip in Panama inside a loaded KC135 sitting on the runway for 16 hours.”
After Desert Storm, her tour came to an end and she started her life as a civilian cop. She did more research on the internet, learning what transgender was. “I read and researched then realized that was me. It explained my feelings,” she said.
But after that, she entered the time she calls her “decade of denial,” where she refused to believe and accept her true self. “I was so ingrained and meshed into living a fake life and persona I created to be a macho kind of guy. I was pretty good at it. I think sometimes I was too good and I believed it, until I finally came to realize that that’s not me.
"I wanted to be killed in the line of duty as a way of solving my problems during that decade of denial. I was the first one through the door, the first one to the bar fight and car chases and shootouts.”
By ‘04, Johnson enlisted again maintaining her rank as a TSgt. She couldn’t take the double lifestyle any longer and discharged in ’08, with only two years left before retirement. She recalls during those years of seeing her therapist in Wichita, who suggested she come into the appointment dressed in femme attire.
The next day Johnson overheard a couple of Airmen gossiping about TSgt. Johnson’s “hot blonde girlfriend,” who they saw driving Johnson’s truck. Another time, she went in for her yearly physical. She took herbal supplements to promote breast growth, which worked. Her doctor advised her to stop taking the supplements. Both times created a chuckle in the back of her mind, but still was a cause for concern. After her orders expired, instead of renewing them, she chose to leave.
Johnson began her transition shortly after her discharge. Now living in Florida, an advocate for transgender people in the military and a volunteer at the VA, the only regrets she has are wishing she could’ve done everything she did for her country as her true identity.
She believes being transgender in the military has nothing to do with not being able to get the job done. “I’m positive I would be able to do the job I did at McConnell and while deployed. Deploying, I’d be doing the same thing, just a different location. What’s the difference? A bullet is a bullet is a bullet. A bomb is a bomb is a bomb. It makes no difference where it comes from,” she explained.
The other regret is more recent. “I admit, I voted for Trump,” Johnson said. “Today I’m very sorry that I did. He promoted supporting LGBT people. He said, ‘If you can do the job, do the job.’ I kept thinking to myself, ‘Okay let’s give the guy a chance.’ I bit into it.
“Here he is now slamming the door on us and calling us names. Now, guess what? He picked on the wrong people. We are veterans. We don’t quit fighting and you just picked on the wrong group, dude … I understand the male perspective on a lot of issues. Thirty years ago, I was this male macho chauvinistic pig from hell. If I can change, hopefully these guys can change too.”
Johnson wishes to encourage others who may be facing a similar situation to keep going. “Eating a bullet is not the answer. Seek counseling and therapy… I’m proud of my service and contributions. I can’t hide who I am or what I am, so I choose not to hide from it. I embrace it. I’m loud and proud.
"We should all just be treated like any other member of society. All we want is a good job and to pay our bills. We don’t want anything special. We just want what you have. It’s not a matter of entitlement, but treating people the way they should be treated.” l