Stevie Neal, a transgender woman who served in the United States Marines 40 years ago, sat on a booth in Denizens Brewing Co. during an lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender social gathering reflecting on the world’s increasing acceptance of LGBT people.
Neal is one the founders of the Montgomery County Pride Center, a group that is trying to bring big-city resources for the LGBT community to Montgomery County even as they face Republican politicians in power who they feel don’t do enough for the community.
For Neal, her youth reveals a life without strong roots to any one place.
I left home when I was 17, and I’ve lived all over the country, so I don’t really consider any place where I’m from,” she said. “I wanted to leave home. I ran off and joined the Marines, so I didn’t have a lot of freedom but still. It got me out of the house.”
Although Neal got out of the house, she wasn’t out of the closet in the military.
“[My military experience] was very uncomfortable. I definitely didn’t feel like I fit in or was part of the team,” she said. “I was deeply undercover in the closet.”
Although she already felt that she was different, Neal didn’t know that she was transgender at the time.
“Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know that that was my issue. I knew something was wrong, but the word transgender didn’t exist. I knew I was different, and I knew I was profoundly unhappy with the role that I was assigned to play in the world. and I did not feel at all comfortable or happy in my own skin,” she said. “ But I couldn’t identify what it was.”
That confusion lasted for decades, until technology brought Neal to a community of similar people.
“I had hints here and there but no exact idea. And frankly, it wasn’t until the advent of the internet where I found a community and I found words to express how I felt and I found like-minded people who provided support,” said Neal. “It was not till the’90s until it really became clear where I was and what was going on”
Now, Neal has been working on compiling resources for the Pride Center, and in the process, she has realized that many more resources exist than previously expected.
“One of my pet projects is going to be compiling a resource guide for the community for resources here in MoCo. Traditionally, people have had to go into D.C. or into Baltimore for a lot of services because that’s where they know they are,” she said. “Well, I’ve found since I lived here that a lot of those services are just here too, but nobody knows about them.”
Neal believes that having access to those resources when she was younger would have meant the world.
“I thought I was the only one. So, yeah, having a place like that would have meant a great deal to me. It would have changed my life,” she said. “And I do believe that that same thing is true for a lot of young people today who are feeling, you know, who are questioning, who aren’t sure who they are, what their future is, where they fit in. I think having a place, a safe place for them to go and express that could make a huge difference in their lives too.”
Although Neal believes the world has come a long way in accepting the LGBT community, there are still lapses in acceptance that hurt, particularly when President Donald J. Trump tweeted that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military.
“This one was very personal to me, being transgender, having served in the military. Knowing many, many other transgender people who have also served,” she said. “Most of us had to be in the closet, and it was such a relief in the last year, basically, that transgender people have been allowed to serve openly.”
“I just feel for my brothers and sisters who are serving now who are transgender who are suddenly in this limbo and have no idea what’s going to happen to them. It just makes me sad that we would have to take this retrograde step at this time,” said Neal.
Other than Trump, Neal also takes issue with Gov. Larry Hogan’s leadership.
“I think an activist, progressive governor could do a lot. That’s not Larry Hogan. He’s not an activist governor, and he’s not a progressive governor. In my mind, just a lump sitting there, occupying the office and not really doing much for anybody.”
Mycroft Masada, another one of the founders, shares Neal’s belief that Montgomery County needs a pride center and the resources that come with it.
“A lot of people said go to D.C. or Baltimore, and that’s not really the appropriate response for folks from Montgomery County, you know. We also need our own community structures,” said Masada.
However, Masada still sees room for improvement in Montgomery County.
“I mean we’re fortunate in a lot of ways to be in Montgomery County.” said Masada. “There’s stuff missing as well. It’s challenging, too, because I think MoCo is so, there’s such a feeling of things being settled, and being OK, that it can be hard to galvanize people and to organize and to address what still needs to be done.”