Zama transgender Soldier finds inclusion, support in Army

Zama transgender Soldier finds inclusion, support in Army

by Sean Kimmons
U.S. Army Garrison Japan Public Affairs

CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Spc. Antavius Matthews noticed at a young age that she was more in touch with her feminine side than the other boys.

Matthews, who was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman, said she struggled to make sense of how she truly felt while growing up in a rough part of Atlanta.

“I was confused at that time,” said Matthews, a supply specialist assigned to the 35th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion. “I was still trying to figure myself out.”

She dressed in female clothing and braided her hair, a leap from the tough exterior displayed by men in her neighborhood. There, random shootings were common, she said, and so was navigating past drug dealers on her way home from school.

But it was in the halls of her high school where she faced the real challenges. While teenagers normally look to find themselves during those years, she was frequently teased as she tried to express herself.

“In school, I would hear remarks from males, calling me all types of names and dragging me through the mud,” said Matthews, now 23. “I learned not to react to it, because you are what you answer to.”

Matthews grew thick skin and strived to remain confident in herself. At 16, she came out to her family. While the news initially shocked her mother, Matthews said she has since become one of her biggest supporters.

She said her mother, a single parent who raised five children, is a determined woman who has been a great role model.

“She gave us a lot of life lessons about being yourself,” Matthews said, adding that her mother also taught her to be independent.

Matthews is one of many LGBTQ Soldiers who have been able to openly serve since 2011 after the repeal of the Defense Department’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Every June, the military now recognizes its LGBTQ personnel for their service in honor of National Pride Month.

“If you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve, and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has previously said.

Serving with pride

In her senior year of high school, Matthews decided to join the Army. She has served four years and hopes to soon be promoted to sergeant.

She said she enjoys her job as a unit supply specialist, the lifeline for Army units.

“Without supply, you cannot do anything,” she said. “You won’t have any equipment, office supplies or other miscellaneous items.”

A self-described introvert, Matthews said the Army has helped her come out of her shell and be more social. And the inclusion found in being part of a cohesive team has made her more sympathetic to others in her unit.

“We see each other every day and we go through the same things,” she said. “If I’m stressed out, then they are probably stressed out. We’re battle buddies and we have to care for each other. We are each other’s family.”

Army units are often a hodgepodge of Soldiers from unique backgrounds thrown together and expected to accomplish any mission.

While at Fort Hood, Texas, which was her previous duty station, Matthews said her supply sergeant was a Muslim who opened her eyes to his culture and the religion of Islam.

“I learned things from him and it was the same for him,” she said. “We were from two different worlds, but we still became friends.”

The sense of belonging she has received throughout her Army career has made her more confident to be herself.

“It makes me feel like I’m wanted,” she said, “and that I’m a human instead of something foreign.”

Being yourself

Matthews currently plays a key role in the 35th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion’s busy supply room, tucked inside the U.S. Army Japan headquarters building.

Staff Sgt. Natasha Ridgeway, her supply sergeant, described Matthews as a good Soldier who is very respectful, loyal and completes any task she receives.

“Everything about her is a breath of fresh air,” Ridgeway said. “She’s always happy, high-spirited.”

When Matthews first arrived to Japan last year, Ridgeway took her under her wing to ensure she was properly in-processed. The sergeant even had Matthews join her family on outings to explore the country.

With Matthews’ family thousands of miles away, Ridgeway said she tries to treat her like one of her own relatives.

“It’s good to know that you still have family right here in this office,” Ridgeway said. “You can be yourself.”

Matthews has drawn inspiration to be her true self from other service members as well as musical artist Lady Gaga, an advocate for the LGBTQ community.

“As a kid, it was awesome to see her be herself,” Matthews said. “She didn’t really care about what anybody said about her.”

While the LGBTQ movement has made progress over the years, the community still battles with mental health concerns.

Last month, the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and mental health organization that focuses on the queer community, published a report that showed 45% of youth respondents had seriously considered suicide in the past year.

Transgender and nonbinary people considered or attempted suicide at the highest rates, and LGBTQ youth of color revealed higher rates than their white counterparts, according to the report.

For those struggling with their own identity, Matthews encourages them to just simply be themselves and not worry about what others think.

“You can’t love nobody if you can’t love yourself,” she said. “That’s the first thing, and it is kind of the hardest thing to do. It takes time and you’ll get there eventually.”

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