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Interview with Paula Neira

Courage Has No Gender: An Interview with Paula Neira      

By Rochelle Arnold-Simmons

Paula served in the military as a man before coming out as transgender and finding a path toward nursing. This is her story of service--of many different stripes--throughout her career.

1.     Please tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I can sum myself up in three words, Navy, Nurse, Lawyer.   I have been here at Hopkins for seven years; I came here as a Travel Nurse in August of 2007 and then this opportunity opened up. I am originally from New Jersey; I come from a blue collar background. My dad was a Teamster and my mom was a school crossing guard. My grandparents emigrated from Spain. My family grew up in New York; I am the second generation born here. I grew up in Jersey City, Exit 15E off the Turnpike!

I grew up with one sibling and in my adult life I learned I had an extended family that included two half-sisters. I went to Regis High School in New York City. I graduated with distinction from the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1985. I was a qualified Surface Warfare Officer (SWO). It was a noble profession; I knew I wanted to go to the Naval Academy since I was seven years old. I only applied to two colleges, the Naval Academy and the Coast Guard Academy.

I was a Naval Officer on active duty for five years, and I went into the reserves for a year as an officer. I volunteered to return to active duty and served in Operation Desert Storm. After that I resigned and went to school for nursing.

I am a bridge between this profile and the previous profile. If there had been an option to serve and be who I am, I would still be in the Navy. I never would have left the Navy if there was an option to serve and be who I am. This was in 1991, before even the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

When you realize you are dealing with gender identity, if you said anything to someone in the Navy you would have been immediately discharged. Unfortunately the rules are the same today. As a veteran advocate I am one of the people leading efforts to change the military regulations that bar people like me from having a continued career in the military. I made the decision to be on the forefront to change this.

My niche in the world is still in the military. As a lawyer I worked with Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN). This was the primary organization working on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I say proudly that I was one of the people who led those efforts to make that change in the law. This allows LGB people to serve in the military now.

This to me was an extension of my military service. As an officer in the Navy, you swear to uphold the Constitution. Making sure the Constitution applies to everyone by allowing anyone to serve their country is important to me. I am one of the leading experts on Transgender military service in the country. I do not want to see men and women who are serving honorably today have to sacrifice their career like I did so I have a personal stake in it.

2.     What inspired you to serve in the military?

Service, the profession of arms, it was a call as strong as any religious vocation to me. My parents instilled in me that if you are blessed with talent and gifts you have an obligation to use them for the greater good. My Dad was in the army in WWII and did his three years, but he was always proud to serve his country. It was not like I got pushed into the military or came from a military family; it was made clear that this is a noble profession. 

Having a Jesuit background in high school was the ideal if you are a person that is driven to serve. I knew I wanted to go to the Naval Academy since I was seven years old. When I applied for college, I look back on it now and I was either very arrogant or very dumb; everyone applied for a safety school but I only applied to the Naval Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy was my safety school.

The hardest thing I’ve ever done was to make the decision to leave the military. I had to walk away from a calling. Now that I am older, having had to make that sacrifice is what put me in the place to work for change in the military. The military is very resistant to change, but the nation has changed. The nation has evolved, just as the military had to racially integrate and then allow women, the LGBT community is just the latest group that wants nothing more than to serve their country. By using my background to help drive that change is my way of fulfilling that need to serve and my way of staying connected to the Navy. Emergency medicine and nursing is fun, but the military is my passion.

3.     How has your military service impacted your professional development and career?

The discrimination in the military got me into nursing. I often joke about it, but obviously discrimination against transgender people cost me to sacrifice my naval career. The first two civilian jobs I was offered were rescinded when I notified them of who I was. I needed something to do and I wanted to go into professional service and emergency nursing gave me an avenue where I could be authentically me and I could be in a career that contributed to the community. I did not want to go to medical school for seven years, so I went to school for nursing, it gave me an opportunity to serve and contribute to the community.

I got a scholarship from the Department of Veterans Affairs and in exchange for paying for nursing school I worked at the Veterans Administration (VA) for three years. The VA is where I launched my nursing career. I have now been a nurse for 20 years, more than twice as long as my career in the Navy.

The things you learn in military service, being a part of something bigger than yourself, and subordinating your individual desires for the sake of a greater mission are lessons that certainly can be applied in other disciplines.

Every person in the military will eventually hang up their uniform. Any employee can use the skills of being a team player and mission focused. In the health care arena and throughout the enterprise, the lessons from the military can be a benefit to the organization.

4.     Is there one thing (transferable skill or otherwise) that helped you transition from the military to medicine?

The ability to perform under pressure helped, particularly in emergency medicine. In the military, you learn how to operate in a very time sensitive high risk environment and that directly translates into what we do here in nursing.

5.     You have been in the forefront of the military “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) culture change. Can you describe what it is/was like for you as a veteran to support this change?

I was blessed with the opportunity to be able to contribute at the center of leadership for the change. Seeing an institution I care so much about get better is a great source of pride for me. Seeing the Navy’s core values, (Honor, Courage and Commitment), I always felt “DADT” corroded those values. Particularly Honor because it forced not only the individual but also the organization to compromise its integrity to maintain this policy. It was asking people to lie about who they are, either actively or by omission just merely to serve. It put the institution in a hypocritical spot by saying Honor is the most important value we have, yet we want you to lie to us because if you tell us the truth we are going to kick you out. You would be kicked out no matter how good you are or how good of a soldier you are or how much you contribute to the mission, but just because of your sexual orientation.

Today it still happens for gender identity. The regulations are different; the underlying pretext is the same. We don’t care how good you do your job or how dedicated you are, and we don’t want your kind here.

One thing I take a lot of pride in is that I really sacrificed my career when I left the military 23 years ago. Today my classmates who are still on duty are now retiring because we would be at our 30-year point. In a lot of ways, the path I have been on and the work that I have done to make the military different, has enabled me to have made more of an impact on the Navy than if I had stayed in uniform. It’s a consolation.

One of the things that have been fortunate is that when I was an attorney at SDLN, my nursing background played an important part.  Back during DADT, a 17, 18 or 19 year old junior enlistee would call and ask for help and often we would be the first people they could talk to for support. You could hear their relief on the telephone. In that moment, my nursing background and ability to do therapeutic communication was more important than my skills as a lawyer.

Today with the work on transgender stuff, even within healthcare we have a dismal lack of cultural competence in dealing with the transgender population. The average doctor or nurse gets very little training if any on dealing with this population. It allows me to work in both roles. The smartest thing I ever did after leaving the military was becoming a nurse.

I feel blessed with having a very unique perspective. I am not the typical nurse. I still look at the world through a military paradigm, and I think that’s good for nursing because of issues of professionalism, being mission focused. The fact that I am a lawyer is an additional dimension that helps me understand the medical/legal aspects of things. It is really nice to be able to look at things from a different perspective and it’s all grounded in being a Naval Academy grad.

6.     What if anything can Johns Hopkins do to support someone transitioning from the military to a civilian career?

The most basic thing is to hire veterans. Allow people to play to their strengths and appreciate what the veteran brings. Many people have preconceived notions about military people. There’s the perception that veterans are shattered and have many challenges they cannot overcome. If you’ve never been in a combat environment you can never understand the challenges which are real. Veterans are eager to contribute. You have to find a way for people to get back home, make them feel welcomed, and appreciate their sacrifice. Veterans do not want pity; they want a fair shake, an opportunity to grow and the opportunity to be a part of a team.

The military experience is so transformative. People join at age 17 or 18 and the military is very good at taking them and making them good soldiers. However, the military is not always good at integrating folks back into the civilian world. Military people should not be looked upon as outsiders. Today, so few people serve it is very easy to look at military people as outsiders.

In the time that I have been here, I have always felt supported by my colleagues. Anyone that walks into my office knows they are dealing with a veteran. Being a veteran amongst a bunch of civilians definitely has its humorous moments. I do not appreciate people calling me a civilian. I am a veteran.  I don’t know if that’s universal but I think it is a reflection of the difference between people in the military who make it a career and individuals who serve for just a tour of duty and do not intend to make it a career.

I was real clear that it was a calling for me and I knew my folks could not afford to pay for me to go to college. For people who come from a rural area or those who live in urban areas that are socially and economically depressed, the military can become an extended family and often seen as a way out. I knew that by going to the military I could get my college paid for which my family could not afford.

Having a military that is divorced from the society it defends is a threat to democracy. There are so few people that serve today and so few people who understand the military as a culture. It is very tempting for military people to think they are better than the people we defend because we understand sacrifice, dedication and subordinating ourselves for a greater good. All those things that are noble can tempt you to think you are better than others.

7.     What advice would you give to a new veteran joining Hopkins?

Be good at your job. Apply what you have learned to your new position. Teamwork is teamwork. Have patience and understand that you’re not in the military any more. This was a personal lesson I had to learn. Don’t make the assumption that those who have not served understand things the same way you do and do not get frustrated by that. Some of the tools in the military you do not have in the civilian world.  Very few people in this organization will bark and expect people to go do something.

Nursing as a profession does not do a very good job of socializing nurses to become professionals. Veterans also bring attention to detail. One of the mistakes that I made is on initiative.

This is a story about taking initiative. You get the info you need and then you just go do it, you don’t sit around and wait for someone to tell you all of what needs to be done, step by step.  This is a very good military trait. I tell you what my intent is and what I want done and if you need guidance you let me know.

I gave that framework to a civilian project and it did not work. People expected a lot more direction. The mistake I made is that I assumed that everyone would just go and do it. It was not the appropriate way to do it. It was actually unrealistic for me to expect it. The good side about it now is that I see my colleagues picking up on it. They all are taking more initiative. For the veteran you cannot allow yourself to get frustrated when folks don’t get that because it is not their experience.

8.     What do you want the Hopkins community to know about service men and women?

We are us. We are not this separate group. Those who serve are special and a small percentage of the population. We are your mother, brother, sister or fathers who are proud to serve our country and it is a privilege to do so.

9.     What would you suggest the Hopkins community do to recognize veterans?

Give Veterans Day off as a holiday. I am sensitive about the fact that we can’t just give veterans the day off, however maybe provide it as a floating holiday.

To have a welcome aboard for veterans so they can get a chance to say what it’s like. I was a veteran for 16 years before I got to Hopkins, so this was not my first job outside the military and I had already gone through the transition. Someone who is going through it now, that might be very helpful. Just because you work at Hopkins does not mean you don’t have some of the same issues other veterans face.

There are folks coming back from experiences in places like Afghanistan where they need real support. Veterans’ suicide is real. We have lost more veterans to suicide than to combat operations in the past few years, on average 22 veterans a day. Knowing that they are welcomed is important.

When I came on board there was nothing to let me know that it is a welcoming environment, although it is. To the extent we have Affinity Groups we need to do a better job to let folks know they exist. To have something that allow people to know what’s available for support would be helpful.

Note: One of the sailors who were under me while I was in the Navy now works here a Hopkins. I am not sure that he recognizes me. I intend to approach him someday but I am sensitive that not everyone is open-minded. I hope that he will be.

To learn more about Paula’s journey click here.


Did You Know?
  • In 1893 Florence Bascomb became the University's first female PhD.
  • Christine Ladd-Franklin was the first woman to earn a PhD at Hopkins, in mathematics in 1882. The trustees denied her the degree and refused to change the policy about admitting women; she finally received her degree 44 years later.
  • As of 2009-2010, the undergraduate population was 47% female and 53% male.
  • Hopkins researchers took the first color photograph of the whole earth from space in 1967.
  • Hopkins researchers confirmed the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948.
  • In 1948 Hopkins researchers discovered Dramamine's effectiveness in alleviating motion sickness.
  • Kelly Miller was the first African American to attend Johns Hopkins University. Admitted as a graduate student in mathematics in 1887.
  • In 1890, five Baltimore women, four of them daughters of Hopkins trustees, organized the Women's Fund Committee. Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Mary Gwinn, Elizabeth King, and Julia Rogers raised money needed to establish the School of Medicine with the condition that the school accept women.
  • In 1999, Johns Hopkins University became one of the first major institutions to offer same-sex domestic partner benefits to employees.
  • The Diversity Leadership Council presented the first annual Diversity Leadership Awards in 2003.
  • The Diversity Leadership Council organized the first Diversity Conference in 2004.
  • There are 36 Nobel Prize winners associated with Johns Hopkins University.
  • More than 10,000 University alumni currently live in 162 countries.
  • Johns Hopkins international research and training sites, programs, and offices are in 134 countries.
  • In 1947, Ralph Young, M.D. became the first black medical doctor at Johns Hopkins. He was a syphilis expert and was appointed by A.M. Harvey, M.D., head of the Department of Medicine.
  • The Hopkins Center for Social concern provides a base for more than 50 student-run programs that serve Baltimore communities.  In 2009-2010, more than 1,500 students performed nearly 80,000 hours of volunteer work through these programs.
  • Vivien Thomas, a medical technician to Surgeon-in-Chief, Alfred Blalock, M.D., was one of the most famous blacks at Johns Hopkins. He trained surgical residents and is recognized for techniques he perfected in treating congenital heart defects.
  • Roland Smoot, M.D. became the first black physician with admitting privileges at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1965. He was the son of a post office employee and a domestic worker.
  • Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, M.D. Dr. Q, is a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins and author of "Becoming Dr. Q." When he was just 19, Dr. Q jumped the border fence between Mexico and the United States and labored as a farm worker until he could save enough to earn an education and become a U.S. Citizen.
  • Johns Hopkins enrolls undergraduates from all 50 states and more than 71 nations.
  • The seminar method of instruction was introduced in the United States by a Johns Hopkins University postdoctoral student.
  • The JH Sheridan Libraries and Museums have 4,395,668 volumes on its shelves.
  • In 1879 Hopkins researchers discovered the sweetening agent saccharin.
  • In 2004 Hopkins researchers sent a spacecraft to Mercury to orbit the planet and see, for the first time, the majority of Mercury's surface.
  • The Peabody Conservatory collaborated with the National University of Singapore to create the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, Singapore's first and only conservatory of music.
  • Gertrude Stein studied at the School of Medicine from 1897-1902, though she did not receive a degree.
  • In 1991 Estelle Fishbein, former University General Counsel, became Johns Hopkins' first female vice president.
  • In 2011, the LGBT Community at Johns Hopkins joined the OUTList on National Coming Out Day.
  • The first three JHU bachelor's degrees were conferred in spring 1879.
  • There are more than 25 undergraduate multicultural student organizations at Johns Hopkins.
  • The Diversity Leadership Council has representation from all major Johns Hopkins University entities, Johns Hopkins Health System, and the Applied Physics Laboratory.
  • The Diversity Leadership Council has more than 40 members, who represent more than 30 departments and all campuses.
  • The Mosaic Initiative is the first University-wide Initiative to focus on the recruitment and retention of individuals that are under-represented in the JHU faculty including women and persons of color, across all divisions and units.
  • JHU age demographics are slowly changing: Our age demographics have shifted, with Baby Boomers (born 1943-1960) and Traditionalists (born before 1943) leaving our workforce while Gen X (born 1961-1981) and Gen Y (born after 1981) joining in greater numbers.

    Staff are the youngest, Deans/Executives are the oldest: In the second quarter of 2012, the average age of Deans/Executives is 55, Professorial Faculty is 50, Bargaining Unit is 49, Senior Staff is 46, Non-Professorial Faculty is 45, and Staff is 42.