WASHINGTON - For Donna Harding, joining the Australian army was a bid to try to suppress what she had known from an early age - she was a girl trapped in a boy's body.
"It's quite a common pathway for people who are gender conflicted, trying to fix what we see is wrong with us, and see the military as the way of doing that," Major Harding said.
She was speaking at an unprecedented gathering of transgender troops from foreign armies in Washington, sharing their experiences in the hopes of persuading the Pentagon and the US administration to break perhaps the last taboo - openly integrating members of their community into the military's ranks.
Eighteen countries around the world expressly allow transgender personnel to serve, including major US allies like Australia, Britain, Canada, Sweden and New Zealand.
But in the United States, despite the 2011 repeal of the divisive "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, which banned gays from serving openly, there is little talk of extending the same rights to transgender people.
There are an estimated 15,500 transgender people believed to be serving in the US armed forces, but, under the current rules, if they are discovered the military is required to dismiss them.
Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said earlier this year he was open to reconsidering the current ban. But as yet no review is underway, and any move to incorporate transgender people openly into the ranks is likely to stir controversy.
Harding joined the Australian reserve forces in 2000 before entering the regular army in 2004. She said she had "lived under the constant anxiety and fear that someone would find out my secret." "I've lost count of the number of times it would have been so easy to drive into that oncoming truck," Harding told the audience at the event organised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), noting that 80 per cent of transgender people have contemplated suicide, and some 40 per cent have tried it.
Now after transitioning to become a woman, Harding works with the Royal Australian Nursing Corps and says that being "open and authentic is the key to being able to perform your job." Major Alexandra Larsson, an intelligence officer with the Swedish Air Force, insisted she had been very lucky to receive good support once she plucked up the courage to become a woman, saying she has "the best job in the world."
"The problem today is that it depends on who you are and where you are. And it shouldn't be like that. Everybody should have the same opportunity ... but hopefully people can look at me and say at least 'for her it was possible.'" Key to ensuring that transgender people can be embraced by the army is education, and working so those who undertake the difficult decision can do so with dignity and security.
There is little to suggest that including them has any effect on a military's operational effectiveness.
"Without doubt, the more mature our inclusive policies become, the better our operational delivery becomes, because we have got people who are being themselves, they are being authentic in the workplace, without having to have personal challenges alongside that," said Squadron Leader Sarah Maskell, who promotes equality and diversity in the British Royal Air Force.
Issues such as sharing showers or medical costs and care should be relatively easy to deal with by applying some common sense, the panellists argued.
Sergeant Lucy Jordan, the first person in the New Zealand Defence Forces to become a woman while serving, praised the support she had been given by her commanding officers.
"What my organisation gave me, and what we are doing here, is primarily about investing in the most important thing that an organisation has: its people."