Interview with Calpernia Addams
Addams discusses her relationship to murdered Private First Class Barry Winchell and the upcoming film, "A Soldier's Girl"
In July 1999, Private First Class Barry Winchell was brutally murdered in his barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky., by fellow service members who thought he was gay. At the time of his murder, Winchell was in a relationship with Calpernia Addams, a transgender woman he met in Nashville, Tenn., near Fort Campbell.
On May 31st, Showtime Network will premiere "Soldier's Girl," a film about Calpernia's relationship with Barry. Recently, C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an advocacy group that exposed Winchell's murder as a hate crime, spoke with Calpernia about her own military service, her experience working on the film, and what's next for her.
C. Dixon Osburn: It has not been widely reported that you, too, served in the armed forces, including a tour of duty during Desert Storm. Can you tell us about your time in the military, including how long you served and what you did?
Calpernia: I joined the Navy in 1990 because I really didn't know any other way to get out of Nashville and make something of myself. My ultra-religious parents discouraged higher education because it "led one away from God," so when I scored a 99% on my ASVAB and was heavily courted by all the branches, I chose to go into the Navy with a guarantee of training as a medic, which appealed to me.
After Boot Camp and Hospital Corps school, I went on to Fleet Marine Medical Services school at Camp Lejeune, NC and did eight weeks of intense physical training, combat readiness training and advanced emergency medical techniques. Then it was off to Al-Jubail, Saudi Arabia for the entire duration of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, where I set up a field hospital and moved around in support of various Marine battalions.
After the war, I spent my last 2 years working in the hospital on tiny Adak Island in the Aleutian Chain, 1200 miles off the coast of Alaska. I received my Honorable Discharge in November 1993 without complication, completing my active duty service obligation.
I loved my time in the Navy, and it helped me to grow up and learn some life skills, as well as have some adventure. I don't regret it at all, although in a perfect world I would have been born female and avoided the years of personal misery, mental anguish and unhappiness that come from being an unfulfilled transgender woman. It was only after I got out that I was able to transition and move into the current phase of my life.
Osburn: Did you come to a realization about your gender identity while serving, and if so, how did your emerging identification as a female impact your military career?
Calpernia: I always knew that I wanted to be female, but by the time I had joined the Navy it was a long-supressed need. I thought I could just live as a homosexual male, but after leaving the Navy and exploring what was for me a compromise, I found I could not live without attempting to fully transition. Thankfully I have been able to do so.
Osburn: Have you been in touch with transgender military personnel, and what have they told you about their experiences in the armed forces?
Calpernia: I have talked to a transgender woman serving in the Canadian military who transitioned in service and was allowed to remain. We never went beyond surface conversation due to distance and other commitments, but I'm sure it has been an incredibly difficult experience. I have been receiving occasional emails from a service member overseas right now in the current conflict who is dealing with male-to-female transgender feelings, and I have given them some basic advice (don't get any battleship tattoos or get married for now) and encouraged them to get back in touch when their communication is not so heavily monitored, unless it is crucial.
Osburn: Has anyone from Barry's unit contacted you since his death?
Calpernia: No one from Barry's unit has contacted me. A few people have written claiming to have known Barry, but of the three I don't believe any of them so far.
Osburn: Major General Robert T. Clark, the commanding general of Fort Campbell at the time Barry was murdered, has been nominated by President Bush for promotion to Lieutenant General and command of the Fifth U.S. Army. How do you feel about Clark's nomination, in light of the environment Barry endured under his command?
Calpernia: I wish I knew the full situation with General Clark. I really don't know the details, such as: Did he ever sincerely apologize? What are his feelings on what happened? Does he accept responsibility for the conditions relating to alcohol and lack of discipline? Would a breach of discipline of this level which was not "gay" based normally block his promotion? Is there any precedent? Obviously, I feel he is responsible as a commander to maintain an environment of order and discipline, and follow the law concerning alcohol and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue, Don't Harass" and violence and emergency response readiness.
Osburn: Soldier's Girl is a moving tribute to your relationship with Barry. How do you think he would have felt about the film?
Calpernia: Barry would probably find the film as surreal an experience as I do. I think it is amazing that it was made, especially by such a gifted and recognized team of talented actors and filmmakers. Troy gives a heroic portrayal of a brave, kind and loving man. But I do sincerely wish none of this had ever happened, and we were all just living out our normal lives.
Osburn: What were your experiences at Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival like?
Calpernia: Sundance was exciting because I saw how people were affected by the story in Soldier's Girl. People who had the power to set trends and make themselves heard looked at the story and hopefully understood what a waste Barry's murder was, and hopefully also some things about transgender women and the men who are involved with them. Watching the film over and over has been brutalizing, but at the same time it is difficult not to watch it every time I am in the same place it's playing. Watching it allows me to relive the good times again, to go back in time in my mind. But I leave the theater before the ending. It is very difficult to watch. Tribeca was smaller, but it was great to see a New York audience react to the story and once again confirm that people are moved by it and might join in to fight against violence and discrimination.
Osburn: How has your own family reacted to the film and how did they react to your relationship with Barry, both before and after his murder?
Calpernia: My parents do not watch movies (I did not see a movie until I turned 18 and left the house). They have never acknowledged that any of this has happened, or even that I have transitioned and am female. They love me very much, but I think it would be difficult for an outsider to understand the way religion controls my family and colors their world. It is beyond the levels most people I have met have ever encountered in their lives.
Osburn: Have you received any letters or notes since Barry's death that particularly stand out in your mind?
Calpernia: The letters and emails I've received have all been overwhelmingly supportive and outraged at the injustice of murder. To me, the most important communication has been the support and kindness of Barry's parents, Pat and Wally.
Osburn: What advice have you found to be helpful in dealing with a loss as senseless and tragic as Barry's death?
Calpernia: Sometimes events take parts of a person's life out of their own control, and when this happens I've found all I can do is stand up straight and keep moving forward. I take personal time to reflect on things, let my friends help me where they can, and then use whatever talents or gifts I have to do something about the problems. My talent has always been communication, through writing, acting, or speaking to people, so I have tried to use this to help people understand and to put the information into the hands of people in a position to do bigger things than I am capable of doing.
Osburn: Soldier's Girl is one of the first films to examine the true story of a relationship involving a transgender person. What barriers and stereotypes do you hope the film will help shatter?
Calpernia: Soldier's Girl is unflinching in showing the complication that an ignorant society adds to transgender relationships, and it is also unflinching in showing the romantic and physical side of our relationships. Some people are uncomfortable with the images of unrepentant sexuality in the film, but it is absolutely real and thus valuable. I hope that transgender women will watch and see a woman deserving of love and affection, and these women will infer that they too can deserve love and affection. I think once people get past the initial discomfort that some will feel, they will buy into a beautiful romance, and when they realize where the story has taken them, and the genuine empathy they will feel, then a true step has been made in opening some minds.
Osburn: What one message do you hope the public and the military will take from the film?
Calpernia: I hope that people will see that Barry's murder was unbelievably tragic and wasteful and completely preventable. Also I hope people will see that transgender women are human and normal and deserve love and normal lives.
Osburn: You've traveled extensively, including to film festivals throughout the country, speaking about the movie. What have you learned about the public's reaction to your relationship with Barry that has surprised you most?
Calpernia: Even though it's not as rare as it once was, it still surprises me every time a person from outside the community is empathetic and positive about a situation involving a transgender woman. Thankfully, people continue to surprise me with this good news at every showing of the film.
Osburn: What have you learned about yourself during the three years since Barry's murder?
Calpernia: I have come into myself as a woman and left behind a lot of the fear that I once had. Barry's acceptance and love for me opened a door at a crucial moment in the formation of my identity and allowed me to hope for a normal life and love and happiness. That it was all taken away was ruinous, but I keep the memory of his goodness and innocence alive in my heart and move forward.
Osburn: Soldier's Girl premiers May 31st on Showtime. After that, what's next for you?
Calpernia: I run a production company, Deep Stealth, Inc., with a partner and we plan to continue producing media to help the transgender community (we have several projects out already). I published my memoirs of growing up in my unique Southern family recently. I am co-writing a screenplay about social and class issues in the transgender world and plan to audition for transgender roles on stage and in film that are usually given to non-transgender people to play, as well as any other role that interests me. I have been an entertainer all my life, and although I would not return to my old cabaret style, I plan to continue performing for as long as I am able.
Readers can visit Calpernia online at www.calpernia.com.