2 transgender veterans find courage — and sisterhood — off the battlefield

Veterans Sue McConnell (left) and Kristyn Weed bonded quickly after meeting at a weekly VA transgender support group.

Veterans Sue McConnell (left) and Kristyn Weed bonded quickly after meeting at a weekly VA transgender support group. "You're always there for me," Weed told McConnell last month at StoryCorps in Tucson, Ariz. "There's never a doubt or question as to whether you would be or not." (Mia Warren/StoryCorps)

StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

Sue McConnell and Kristyn Weed both entered the military in the 1970s. But they also share another kind of sisterhood.

When McConnell, 65, and Weed, 64, came out to their respective families as transgender, they both say they weren’t accepted. In a recent StoryCorps conversation, the two veterans talk about how they found support through one another.

McConnell, a Navy veteran, says she was about 50 years old when she started transitioning to a woman. “My son disowned me,” she says. “He told his mother that he didn’t want anything to do with ‘the f****** freak.’ So I don’t get to talk to my grandson or my granddaughter.”

Weed, who says she didn’t start transitioning until she was 58, says she’s had a similar experience. “Both my daughters disowned me.”

Growing up in Cleveland, McConnell says, “I always knew there was something different. I didn’t like the same things the other boys did. You know, they wanted to play Army and cowboys and Indians. And I wanted to be the girl on the wagon that was sewing and making coffee.”

“But you know, I had to be who I wasn’t so that I could survive,” says McConnell, who served in the Vietnam War.

Weed can empathize. She served 15 years of active duty in the Army — part of that time as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division.

“The units I was in, the soldiers were pretty hard-charging, so that was the image you had to portray,” she says. “I didn’t start wearing women’s clothes until I was out of the military. I wouldn’t do it because I was afraid.”

In 2013, Weed and McConnell met for the first time at a weekly transgender support group provided by the Southern Arizona VA Health Care Service in Tucson.

They hit it off immediately. “We started joking and then just like nitpicking at each other and stuff,” Weed says.

“People said, ‘Well you guys really are sisters!’ ” McConnell says. “We do sit around and talk a lot.”

One favorite spot they share is Denny’s, where the staff all know them, McConnell says. As she remembers, “We would sit in Denny’s for coffee at like two o’clock in the afternoon —”

Sue McConnell (left) and Kristyn Weed are regulars at Denny’s in Tucson, Ariz., where the best friends say they often talk for hours.
(Courtesy of Kristyn Weed)

“And leave there at 10 o’clock at night,” Weed says, finishing McConnell’s sentence.

“She flirts with all the waitresses,” McConnell says of Weed.

Despite the teasing, the two women are grateful for the bond they share. “You know,” Weed says, “it hurts to have lost my daughters, but I found out love is not a two-way street and love is not unconditional.”

“It is for some of us,” McConnell says, nodding to their own close relationship.

“You’re always there for me,” Weed says. “There’s never a doubt or question as to whether you would be or not.”

“You are my sister,” McConnell says.

“I’m glad of it,” Weed says.

Weed has plans to get married this fall. McConnell, naturally, will be officiating.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Liyna Anwar.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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