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One Luke Airman's path to self-acceptance

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class David Busby
  • 56th Fighter Wing

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. – “I knew from the time I was 11 and would pray that I’d wake up in a male body so my life would make more sense,” said Staff Sgt. KC Zens, 372nd Training Squadron Detachment 12 F-35A Lightning II avionics instructor.

Zens is a son, a husband, an Airman, and trains tech school Airmen to maintain the avionics systems in the Air Force’s 5th generation fighter aircraft at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. It is a long journey for anyone to get where Zens has with his career, but he faced an even greater hurdle. While serving on active duty, Zens transitioned from a female body to a body that reflects the gender he identifies with. This did not come without challenges.

In his personal life, Zens felt that people became far more accepting when he was able to “pass” as male at the end of his transition. Some relationships were even severed when he came out to his family and friends.

“While I understand that every individual has to make a choice for their own mental health and wellbeing, it does make me sad to lose those relationships,” said Zens. “I will say that my own mental health has improved drastically since I began my transition. I’ve always been a pretty fun-loving and easygoing person, but now I’m much more confident and sure of myself.”

He’s been in the U.S. Air Force for the last nine years and has been at Luke AFB for the last six. His experiences have given him a unique perspective on how members of the LGBTQ+ community not only handle military life, but flourish in it.

“From my perspective, the best way LGBTQ members can be supported is to be respected,” said Zens. “When I meet someone and they find out that I’m transgender, I’m not looking to change anyone’s views or opinions; I’m looking for them to respect me as an equal human being.”

Over the course of his transition, Zens has noticed the impact of his gender identity in his service and in his current personal life.

“I came out as trans in 2017,” said Zens. “While some have avoided me when discussing the topic, others have confided in me or asked questions, which I think has helped inform many people about a topic that most don’t know a lot about.”

For many coworkers, his gender identity never even came to mind in his professional life. Instead, it was his character that came first.

“When I met him, he was just another guy in the Air Force,” said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Robert Shilander, 372nd TRS DET 12 F-16/F-35 weapons instructor. “I think [sometimes] the military draws people who aren’t necessarily friendly first. It’s a job that’s intrinsically a warfighting force. Finding people who are kind, as a part of who they are, is a big deal [within the military]. Being kind, nice and generous, is [Zens’] defining characteristics. If you need something, he’s going to help out or find someone who can.”

Though his journey was not without hardships, it was surprising to him that so many members of his leadership were there to support him - even the leadership in his wife’s chain of command took steps to ensure the process moved as smoothly as possible.

“I’ve been able to mentor five transgender members of the military at Luke and other bases, due to all parties being open with their leadership,” said Zens. “One [former] coworker became an NCO in charge and ended up with a transgender troop at another base across the country. He reached out and I was able to help that individual reach out to the appropriate agencies. While being fearful is understandable, you can’t get help if people don’t know you need it.”

Just as Zens recognizes what the Air Force has done for him, those around him have noticed his courage as well.

“I think he’s incredibly brave,” said Shilander. “He came out in a group he didn’t know. When there are people [who] are against who he is as a person, [Zens’] stated, ‘it doesn’t matter, I’m going to stand up, be who I am and stay true to myself.’ That’s hard for anyone to do and he’s out there telling his story.”

There are many services that the military offers Airmen, including, but not limited to, gender confirmation surgery.

“[In the military] most people don’t realize what’s being done for us,” said Zens. “There are so many gender reaffirming surgeries and procedures that the military has offered for years and are available to transgender service members.”

Although Zens recognizes being part of the LGBTQ+ community while in the military can come with some unique challenges, he still encourages Airmen to not be afraid to seek help when needed.

“While you may not be able to tell someone is transgender by looking at them, know that you’re not alone,” said Zens. “If you’ve just come out far away from home and feel like you don’t have anyone, seek help. This may sound obvious, but so many LGBTQ+ members feel the same way. Hearing that someone supports them could save someone’s life.”