MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Here are two things to know about our next guest, Alexandra Chandler. First, she's a senior intelligence analyst for the U.S. Defense Department. Over her career, she's worked to keep the country safe from urgent and long-term threats, including weapons of mass destruction. So that's the first thing to know. Here's the second - she's a transgender woman. She was born biologically male and raised by her family as a boy. A little over a decade ago, while working in military intelligence, she made the decision to live openly as a woman. Chandler recently wrote about that experience and her life since in an op-ed in The Washington Post. We invited her to come to our studio to tell us more of her story. And I asked her if back in 2006 when she made the transition she knew of any other openly transgender people in her very traditional workplace.
ALEXANDRA CHANDLER: At the time, no, I did not know a single person that was transgender within either ONI, within the...
KELLY: Office of Naval Intelligence.
CHANDLER: ONI - Office of Naval Intelligence, that's right. So the way that I dealt with my fear, and my fear was profound, was to reach out to those close to me. And this is part of the lesson that I wanted to bring forth with the article, which is transgender people out there, you are never alone because there are people that can surprise you with the love, the acceptance. When I came out to my first-line supervisor, the senior analyst in my group - these were people who just by happenstance happened, I would say, be more conservative than most Americans, yet I could have not chosen greater fighters for me anywhere.
KELLY: You felt like they were fighting for you.
CHANDLER: Yes. I would call them champions. Straight up the chain of command, I had unified support from very early on.
KELLY: In what way? I mean, how were they supporting you?
KELLY: Give us an example.
CHANDLER: ...From the first instance, when I first went in to come out, I was coming out with the intent of saying clearly I can no longer work here, and I'm going to have to go, so I want to ensure a soft landing for the important projects that I'm dealing with.
KELLY: Why did you assume you'd have to quit?
CHANDLER: Because it's - it had never been done before, and I was afraid. So what they did for me was help me get past that fear and to say, well, why don't we try? But when it comes to the broader workforce and people who had not actually interacted with me...
KELLY: People who didn't know you.
CHANDLER: People who didn't know me and had just heard through the grapevine that there is going to be a transgender person changing genders while working here, there was a lot of fear and a lot of anger.
KELLY: How did you hear about that?
CHANDLER: One day, there was a town hall to discuss, I believe, a new performance management system that was coming online. And the then commanding officer of our organization at the end of the meeting opened it up to just general questions. And someone got up and raised the point that there was - I don't think she used the word transgender. I think she might have used the word drag queen - the words drag queen - saying this is happening here. This person is changing genders. You have to protect us from this person. This person needs to be told this can't happen here. This person needs to be fired or this person just needs to be straightened out - words along those lines.
I was sitting in my cube at the time hearing this over a closed-circuit audio-video, and hearing that, my heart sunk because I was in the middle of negotiating when I was going to come out, what it was going to look like at work and hearing that. But then the captain gave a speech that is etched into my brain. He had made a decision based on the value that he put on mission coming first above all else and that he wanted to bring his entire workforce to that fight that I was part of at the time and that his decision was final. And though he recognized that people can have different personal opinions about this, we are all here to fulfill a mission, and we will all be valued in doing so.
KELLY: For the record, has it impacted your work in any way? Whether you're showing up to work as a man, a woman, your job is to get there and go through classified intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.
CHANDLER: Well, here's the great news - the way that my transition impacted my work is I became a much better analyst.
CHANDLER: I became a leader, which I had never really been at work before, and I did a lot more good for the mission than I would have ever done otherwise. And I'll tell you why. When you can barely stand the sound of your own voice, where you can barely stand the sight of yourself, how can you properly go into a meeting and discuss the toughest problems out there and bring your best solutions to the table? You can't. So once that was dealt with, I was so much more effective. I got promoted three times since then. I became - starting as the junior-most analyst in the group that I had joined in 2004, by 2011 I was the division chief of that group.
KELLY: You have a security clearance. You had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get permission to write for The Post and then to come in and speak to us. Why is that important to you, to share your story publicly?
CHANDLER: I've seen the backlash that's come through society regarding the progress that transgender people have made. I saw it in North Carolina in terms of the quote, unquote, "bathroom bill," instances of hate crimes of trans people being harassed. I wanted to make the most revolutionary statement I could in such a climate, which is to become more visible than I'd ever been before, and to assert that trans people can do things and do jobs and have careers and have contributions to this society that you probably didn't realize.
And what's true for trans people is true for people of color, immigrants, other groups that have been feeling a lot of that fear and hate in this climate today. And then to wrap that up to say that we're all in this together and that me as a trans person, I only succeeded because of people that were not trans people, of extremely conservative people, of extremely liberal people, of people who've served in the military, who haven't, people from all walks of our society who, from childhood to my actual transition and my job, made this happen.
KELLY: Alexandra Chandler, senior Navy intelligence officer, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your story.
CHANDLER: Thank you so much for having me.
KELLY: And we should say because she has a very sensitive job, Alexandra Chandler spoke to us in a personal capacity, not an official one. The views expressed are hers, not those of the Defense Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.