She's An Army Exec, Skilled Pilot, & Openly Trans

Photographed By Ryan Pfluger.
The past few months have seen some big moments for transgender rights — from the State of the Union to the Emmys. But, outside the spotlight, there's a quieter progress being made. Hard-working, successful trans leaders are rising in the ranks of government and business — with less fanfare than their celebrity counterparts, but perhaps with even greater impact.

One such person is Amanda Simpson. In 2010, she made history as the first openly trans woman to be appointed by the Obama (or any) administration. Today, she’s the executive director of the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives, where she works to build large-scale renewable energy projects to power Army installations.

It's an interesting place for a transgender woman to work: Simpson is a civilian appointee, but she works for the Army, which, like the entire Department of Defense, bans trans people from serving in uniform. Recently, there have been some inklings that this may change: Ashton Carter, the new Defense Secretary, said last week that he supports allowing transgender people to serve in the military, and the President’s Press Secretary said Obama had an “open mind” about it. But, the current policy is still in effect and "will remain in place until it’s revoked. Until then, it’s premature to speculate," explained Wayne Hall of Army Media Relations.

Meanwhile, Simpson, 53 is hard at work. Before her appointment, she was a pilot and a defense contractor, and she has just now completed the Army’s largest solar project — and has several more on the way. We sat down with Simpson at the Pentagon to talk about her work, life, and experiences as a trailblazer.

I’m sure you heard Ash Carter just said that he would support allowing transgender people to serve in the military. What did you think, hearing that? 
"I think it’s wonderful. Unfortunately, I don’t do policy. I don’t work on trans issues within the administration, and certainly not within the defense department. But, it’s great. I’ve known Ash Carter since he was a mere undersecretary [laughs]." 
Photographed By Ryan Pfluger.
Your career — pilot, defense contractor, and now, the Army — has taken you through some of the most male-dominated professions. Did that make you think about a different path? 
"No, because I have to do what I enjoy, what I love — what’s important to me. We don’t choose our lives; we live our lives... If that means I have other challenges that may be a little more than someone else's, I just have to figure out a way to overcome them. I have been rewarded along the way. I have moved up. I am in the position that I am now because I’ve shown that I can overcome challenges, whether they be personal or professional. It’s those skills that got me to where I am." 

Were you ever surprised by how accepting people were? 
"Yes. When I transitioned, I worked at Raytheon [a defense contractor] and my customers were the Air Force and the Navy, primarily... It was suggested by some management that maybe I [should] be moved off to other activities, but those program managers — whether they were military, in uniform, or civilian — said, 'No, no, no. She is the one we’ve been working with on these projects for the last couple years; she is the one we believe is going to bring these projects to a successful conclusion — we don’t care if she’s wearing slacks or a dress.' And, this was coming from people with stars, bars, and little birdies on their shoulders. They understood that it’s all about the ability to do the job." 
Photographed By Ryan Pfluger.
You mentioned that you faced more challenges than some other people. What were some of those? 
"I’ve always had a good image of myself. The problem was that everyone else’s view of me was different than that image... Growing up in the ‘60s...there were certain stereotypes that people fit into. Being the oldest in my family, I was expected to meet certain standards. I looked up to Mommy and Daddy like gods; they were the motivating forces in our lives when I was little, and I did everything I could to satisfy them. That continued through my life. 

"I experimented over the years with true expression, but never felt that I or society was ready for me to make that leap. And, at that time, before the Internet, we were very isolated. There was no way for me to really find out about people like me. I got beat up plenty — once until my braces cut a hole through my lip — and I had a stepdad who physically and emotionally abused me. I’ve always been me, and I’ve always exhibited the same characteristics that I exhibit now — except many of those...were not acceptable when I presented as male. 

"There were things that were telling me, 'Stay in line. Meet the stereotypes that were defined for you.' It wasn’t really until I realized that I wasn’t going to continue…"

You weren’t going to continue living, you mean? 
"Yes, I wasn’t going to continue living, unless I took action. I had a son, I had a family, I had responsibilities, and it was becoming more and more difficult for me to meet those and lie to those people about who I was." 

After all that, do you remember a moment when things felt better? 
"There have been several moments — they happen in steps. When I first went out in public as Amanda. When I first came out to my family. When I came out to my employer. It was so freeing.

"Also, there was so much emotional trauma — when I was going through each of those steps, I was scared out of my gourd, because I didn’t know what was out there — but each time, I found out there were new opportunities to move forward. A friend of mine compared it to jumping out of a plane without a parachute, only to discover that you have wings. Because, you really don’t know until you take that leap, and then, you know what? You’ve got to learn to fly." 
Are you ever frustrated when someone like me comes to interview you — this hugely successful woman — and I ask you about your childhood and coming out instead of focusing on your career? 

"I took a certain amount of pleasure last year, when Fox News interviewed me about some of my projects with the Army. And, then I looked back at what Fox News had done in January of 2010, when I was appointed. I was like, I wonder if this team knows what the other team said back then? But, they didn’t make the connection.

"20 years ago, when I started transitioning, and 15 years ago when I came out, there wasn’t the public visibility that there is today. As visibility increases and more of the larger population sees us, there’s some education that continues to be needed. I think it’s good — do I mind speaking out? No. Is being trans all of me? No. It’s a portion of who I am.

"I didn’t get here because I’m trans. I got here because I am an expert in my field. But, I wasn’t prevented from getting here because I’m trans. I didn’t get this job because I’m trans, but I didn’t not get this job because I’m trans." 

You’re executive director of the Army Office of Energy. What’s exciting you about your job right now?

"I’m building these large solar and biomass projects — with wind projects on the horizon. But, the reason I’m doing it is not just to do biomass or wind or solar. Great, we’re protecting the environment and we’re being green — but we’re doing it because the Army needs it. In today’s society, a soldier on the front lines overseas has a radio and a PDA on his chest or on his wrist that he gets information from. Well, that device goes to a radio, up to a satellite, through a data center here in the States, where there’s an intel officer at one of our facilities. If the power goes down, our soldier at the tip of the spear doesn’t have access to the information he needs. We’re looking at how to leverage renewable energy, so I don’t have to depend on the grid." 

Photographed By Ryan Pfluger.
Tell me about your experience as a pilot. Your flight record is kind of insane!
"I wouldn’t call it insane. [Laughs] It’s all very careful and planned. There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there aren't many old, bold pilots.

"I was a commercial pilot with an instrument rating...I got my instructor license…eventually, I went out and got my multi-engine instrument commercial license and moved on from there. I have several thousands of hours of flying something like 60 different makes and models of aircraft. Unfortunately, I have to’s been about three months since I’ve flown. Finding time is difficult. And, flying the D.C. area is a little more complicated than just hopping in a plane in the middle of Arizona. Here, they shoot you down." 

Now, sitting in the Pentagon, when you look back at that bullied kid you once were, do you ever feel surprised by how far you’ve come?

"I don’t think it’s a surprise — I think it’s vindication." 

Is there any advice you'd give your younger self?

"Look to advocates and allies — people who do support your potentially unconventional path — but at the same time, embrace your own path. There more than seven billion of us, and each and every one of us is unique; you cannot pattern yourself after someone else. I can no more be Reneé Richards than Laverne Cox can be me or do my job. You know, I always thought she was really, really tall — until the two of us started talking to each other [and I learned] she wears big heels. [Laughs]

"Mostly, just believe in yourself. If I’m talking to a twentysomething or even someone in their teens, I’d say it looks immensely difficult to break out of the path that society, your parents, your teachers, your mentors have defined for you. But, try... Try to do something different." 

Want to read more stories about the lives and rights of transgender Americans? Check out our full Trans America series here


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