Transgender veteran uses experience to reach out to others

Nickolai Hammar, Daily NebraskanScott Schneider, 32, is a volunteer at the LGBTQA Resource Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was in the military before choosing to undergo female-to-male gender reassignment.

Nickolai Hammar, Daily Nebraskan
Scott Schneider, 32, is a volunteer at the LGBTQA Resource Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was in the military before choosing to undergo female-to-male gender reassignment.

Scott Schneider’s mom still calls him Megan. His dad quit talking to him for eight years.

After struggling with his identity for most of his life, Schneider — a non-traditional student and military veteran finishing his degrees in biology and psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – started going by Scott in 2007 and began the medical process of transitioning from a female to a male in 2008. Today, he’s worked at UNL’s LGBTQA resource center for a year and a half.

Educating people and changing public perception and misunderstandings is Schneider’s mission. And as LGBT issues increasingly enter the public spotlight, both in the military and in the courts, it’s a mission Schneider sees taking center stage.

Nickolai Hammar, Daily Nebraskan
Scott Schneider, 32, is a volunteer at the LGBTQA Resource Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He was in the military before choosing to undergo female-to-male gender reassignment.

Schneider lives only seven blocks from his parent’s home in Lincoln, but he often goes three to four weeks without talking to his mother. When he does, the exchange is awkward. She refers to Scott with feminine pronouns. Schneider knows his mother is old-fashioned and private. He knows she worries about what others think of her and her family. He has learned to come to respect the distance that her mindset creates in their relationship.

Schneider’s shoulders are wide set; his square jaw accentuated by a dark beard. His strikingly light blue eyes squint when he laughs — a breathy chuckle that punctuates many of his blunt and sarcastic comments. At age 32, his hair is beginning to thin.

Schneider remembered a time when his mother used to play with his hair. He remembered her repeatedly telling him he should grow it out; wear more dresses.

“We butted heads, my mom and I,” Schneider said. “I just knew I wanted to run around with my shirt off and play football. I had no idea that that indicated I should be something else, and I never thought of what other people thought.”

For Schneider that “something else” meant a sex change from female to male. It was a long process of confusion and repeated bouts of depression before reaching that answer. Schneider said he realized he was gay in middle school and had his first relationship with a girl when he was in seventh grade. But he still struggled with identity issues. The years between high school and college, when he went from one data entry job to the next, were especially trying. Schneider started at UNL, but dropped out because he didn’t know what he wanted to do, and he wasn’t getting support. After his dad found a written conversation between Schneider and his girlfriend of six years, he stopped speaking to him.

“I spent like a year just wanting to lay in bed,” he said, his voice suddenly losing its cheery lilt. “I just wanted to sleep, and I felt like I was hauling a ton of rocks. My brain just blanked out, and I didn’t want to move.”
the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’

Schneider was in his mid-20s surfing the Internet when he saw something that would change his life. He said he doesn’t know what he was searching for, but he found someone online who identified as transgender. He did further research.

“I immediately knew it had to happen for me,” Schneider said.

But it didn’t happen for another five years. In 2006, two years after finding the information, he joined the Air National Guard as a female named Megan. Schneider figured if he ignored the transgender thoughts, they might just go away. He needed the money from the military and had always thought about joining.

In 2008, two years into his six years serving with military security at the air base in Lincoln, he decided it was time to start the transition process from female to male.

“I was like, ‘this isn’t happening anymore; I can’t stand it,’” Schneider said. “At that point, I was in the military like one weekend a month, so proportionally, it didn’t make sense to be miserable like 90 percent of my year.”

Schneider consulted a therapist who, after three meetings, determined he should go through with the transgender process. The therapist worked with a lawyer through the Service Members Legal Defense Network and drafted a letter for Schneider’s commander. Schneider didn’t send the letter until two days before he planned to get his first injection of male hormones. At that point – three years before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – Schneider didn’t care if he was kicked out of the military. He knew he had to make his body match his identity. To his surprise, however, his military commander and his chief were accepting. His parents were not. He sent letters to his immediate family to inform them of his decision, but he said he cannot say if the explanation helped.

“They pretty much haven’t budged at all,” Schneider said.

The injections began in August 2008. Schneider had surgery to remove his breasts in October of the same year, a procedure he paid for with a military bonus. Though Schneider’s body began to change as the process continued, he suspects only four or five people knew at the time.

“As far as I know, I don’t think anybody really asked about anything,” Schneider said. “They’d talk about me a little behind my back because my voice was dropping and there would be times when we’d have to take our shirts off.”

Schneider admitted he was scared at how he would be received as the changes continued. He remembers times where he would shave three times a shift to avoid a 5 o’ clock shadow that might raise questions.

Schneider said everyone just pretended it wasn’t happening. “Clearly it was a thing where I was valuable no matter what,” Schneider said. “To the end, people in my unit were like ‘You sure you don’t want to come back?’”

Though he said he never flatly denied his gender identity in the military, he didn’t feel comfortable enough to openly share it.

New beginnings

In January 2012, shortly before completing his six years of military service, Schneider began working in UNL’s LGBTQA resource center, where he answered questions and served on Outspeak panels full time for a year and a half. Around the same time, he had a hysterectomy, the removal of the female sex organs.

Schneider then began a transgender community of about 20 to 25 members who meet once a month to discuss issues and form friendships. He and fellow Lincolnite Wes Staley partnered to start LEAPS, or LQBTQ Education and Public Speaking, where he gives presentations on how the public as well as medical professionals can be allies to transgender people.

He said though Lincoln is a pretty accepting place, he still sees work to be done. Though public acceptance and government protection are becoming increasingly extended to LGBT Americans, there is still a lot of fear about transgender people, he said.

A timely example of a transgender portrayed in the media is Bradley Manning, the army private sentenced to 35-years in prison after leaking military secrets. Manning is now requesting to be called Chelsea Manning. Schneider has followed the story, but he does not believe the verdict or the exposure helped or hurt the public’s perception of transgender people.

“Clearly, she was found guilty, so they didn’t believe that just because you’re trans you’re crazy and should get off,” Schneider said. “I personally think that saved us a bit because if she would have gotten off, that would have reflected more poorly on us than people seeing past that and seeing that it doesn’t matter.”

Schneider believes this education is important, because most of what people hear about transgender people is negative. He said he values the online groups he is a part of, including one for transgender military members that focuses on sharing positive news about the transgender community.

Though Schneider is hesitant to say he has changed people’s minds, he admitted to twisting them, for he usually waits to get to know people before he comes out.

“If anybody sees me walking down the street they are not like, ‘oh look, a transperson’,” Schneider said. “I think I try to make a point to be out as much as possible, but it is an effort and sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m exhausted and I don’t have that kind of energy in me anymore.’ It can be easier to just blend in.”

Sharing his story

For Pat Tetreault, director of UNL’s LGBTQA Resource Center, Schneider’s willingness to answer questions and serve on panel groups has provided a needed service. She said having a transgender, non-traditional student with military experience in the office has been “extremely valuable.” Though he is a private person, she said, he is able to share advice and stories with others.

“He is committed to raising awareness, providing education, helping with skills development and in general, helping to ‘be the change’ in helping create a more welcoming and inclusive community for everyone and to help level the field for trans individuals.”

Schneider attributes his confidence and his belief in honesty to the military. Having military experience is a source of pride for him not because of a sense of personal heroism, but rather the personal growth it provided him.

“I joke about the military and what a bad decision it was, but it was amazing,” Schneider said. “It was completely invaluable in my life. Without the confidence it taught me, I don’t think I would be doing any of the things I would be doing now.”
Tetreault said she is grateful to have met Schneider and will miss him when he graduates.

“Scott is honest, dedicated, resourceful, talented, helpful and has excellent communications skills,” she said. “I am grateful that our paths have intersected. He has made tremendous contributions during his time at the center.”
Schneider understands that people have questions about his life, but he wants people to understand that the decisions he made were to help his physical body match his identity.

“People think (the transition) must be this mind-blowing experience, but I’m like no, trying to live long enough to get it done, that was the crazy, mind-blowing experience,” he said. “It’s like I finally look in the mirror and all I see is me. Before, I was looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Who is that? I don’t know how to dress that.’ I can worry about other things now.”

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