Sheri Swokowski: American Hero

Sheri Swokowski: American Hero

Growing up in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Sheri Swokowski knew that she wanted to continue her family’s military legacy of protecting and serving others. Within two years of graduating from Lincoln High School in Manitowoc in 1968, she joined the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department as a reserve deputy. She later served in the Wisconsin National Guard in the neighboring city of Two Rivers.

In February 1970, Swokowski enlisted into the Army. During the next approximately 35 years, she advanced through the ranks, attaining the rank of colonel by the time she retired in 2004. However, throughout her military career and personal life, she hid her true identity as a transgender woman and forced herself to live as a man. In an interview, Skowkowski shared: “And I will tell you, there is nothing like being the leader of an infantry company, a light infantry company, to make a transwoman compartmentalize her feelings even more. And so I, again, suppressed deeply those feelings… They never left, they were always there, and [I] never shared anything with my wives.”

Swokowski officially came out in 1999. Her wife at the time helped her pick out her new name, which is a combination of the female pronouns “she,” “her” and “I”. It was difficult for Skowoski to come out to her brothers and aunt, who didn’t understand or accept her identity.

Swokowksi also faced prejudice in her career. In 2007, she worked as an instructor at the U.S. Army Force Management School in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. That same year, she decided that she wanted to live authentically. Swokowski took a six-week leave of absence to undergo facial surgery and told Human Resources that she would officially return as Sheri. However, when she went back to the school, it became clear that her transition wasn’t accepted by all her peers.

“They had no experience with transgender employees, and it showed,” she recalled, in a blog post published online. “When I returned, I was greeted by the director, a former three-star general, who thanked me for returning and then announced they had already hired my replacement. While they had hired an instructor, my replacement was not hired for six months after I returned.”

Swokowski was dismissed from the Force Management School. However, she did not give up. In 2008, she landed a job at the Pentagon and worked for two years as a senior analyst for the Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management. Her supervisor was an ally and supported Swokowski throughout her time at the Pentagon. Swokowski then worked as the director of human resources in the Rocky Mountain Region of the United States Forest Service in Denver.

In 2013, Swokowski retired but did not stop advocating for transgender rights in the military.

“My initial plan, when I transitioned back in 2007, was to blend into the woodwork, like so many of my transgender brothers and sisters had done,” she said, in an interview for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum Research Center. “However, that all changed when I was fired at the Army’s Force Management School for no legitimate reason. And since that time, I have done advocacy work, even while working in Washington and Denver and certainly much more now so, on the behalf of other transgender people that are out there. To me, my mission is about making it easier for those who follow.”

Swokowski began working with then-Representative Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay person elected to Congress. Baldwin was sympathetic to the Transgender Rights Movement and shared Swokowski’s story with the House of Representatives in 2008.

Since 2017, Swokowski has spent most of her time volunteering for nonprofits. Currently, she is the vice chair for the Fair Wisconsin Education Fund and is on the Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union in Wisconsin. She continues to advocate for transgender rights. When asked what advice she would give to transgender women struggling with gender dysphoria, she said, “Have a strategic plan that addresses short-, medium- and long-term objectives. You must be willing to lose everything you have and be strong enough to survive.”

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