The past couple years have been tough for the LGBTQ+ community nationwide, but it has been especially difficult for transgender North Carolinians. From Pat McCrory’s controversial House Bill 2 otherwise known as the “bathroom bill” to President Trump’s executive order to ban transgender military recruits. It seems like good, positive news is hard to come by for the LGBTQ+ community. That is, until just last week Danica Roem became the first openly transgender state legislature in Virginia, beating her opponent, the self-proclaimed “chief homophobe” incumbent Bob Marshall. At the end of October, Trump’s military ban was partially blocked by a federal court. Focusing locally, one woman in the Triad wants her story of transitioning to be told and through it, she hopes to inspire people like her.
Emma James Duarte-Clements (who is going through the process of legally changing her name) is a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, a police officer and a bisexual trans woman. She started her transition in May 2016 at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Durham, North Carolina.
“Most people do not know you can do that,” she said. “First and foremost, there are a lot of state laws that are required but because the VA is run under the federal government, those laws do not apply.”
Before she was Emma, she was James Duarte-Clements, retired army, father of six and a recent graduate student with a master’s degree in criminal justice. To begin her transition, Duarte-Clements was set up with a women’s clinic doctor and a counselor in Greensboro. She then started taking the bare minimum of hormones (testosterone blockers and estrogen) because she did not want to move too fast.
“I wanted everyone else to transition with me because it would be too much for the kids,” she said. “They set me up with speech lessons to feminize my voice. I get laser hair removal they do there at the VA. It is fantastic. I did not realize there were so many transgender people in the military system.”
When President Trump signed an executive order in August to ban transgender military recruits, Duarte-Clements was not shy about stating her opinion on the matter. “I was infuriated, I was angry,” she said. “How dare he? I am not one to get on social media– I do post stuff about my kids on Facebook. But when I heard he was trying to do that, I opened up a Twitter account just to rage at him.”
Duarte-Clements said if she could go into the Army again just to spite the president, she would. Duarte-Clements said she receives all of her transitioning services for free through the VA and her hormones get sent to her house. If these services were to be taken away, Duarte-Clements said she would start rallying and joining organizations to fight it.
“Just on the principle that we earned that,” she said. “If you went and dodged bullets and rockets you earned it.”
In fact, she did dodge rockets in Afghanistan, when she was a civilian contractor.
“I saw more activity when I was a civilian than when I was in the Army,” she said.
Duarte-Clements said it is frustrating to be a trans veteran in the United States because gender identity should not matter when it comes to serving the country.
“If you want to serve your country and if you are capable to, then you should be able to,” she said. “At the end of the day that is the focus, not who or what you are but what you want to do for your country. The fact that I still get all my hormones, even though he said no, it is kind of like another in your face moment.”
With Roem’s win in Virginia and Andrea Jenkins in Minneapolis City Council, Duarte-Clements was elated by the shift in transgender acceptance in the country. “It shows how far we’ve come to gaining validation in society,” she said. “It gives me hope that anyone and everyone will eventually be able to be themselves exactly as they are and live ‘normal’ fulfilling lives without fear regardless of gender identity.”
Duarte-Clements surely does not need the approval of the president to feel accepted. The people that mean the world to her, (her six children and two grandchildren) already accept her for who she is. Her 28-year-old son is the “most liberal-minded,” she said because he is bisexual himself and he fully accepts her transition. She said her 20-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter want whatever makes her happy.
“Most still call me dad,” she said. “My 17-year-old calls me ‘Domma.’” Duarte-Clements ex-wife and her boyfriend have a hard time seeing her as anything other than a male. “They call me “Jemma,” she said. “So I take it. I know they are trying.”
Duarte-Clements said that even though she would love to be called mom, she doesn’t think she has earned that title.
“I really haven’t earned the right to call myself mom,” she said. “I did not birth them. I did not play that role so I cannot just walk in and change things because I decided to change my gender. Plus, I told them to call me what they are comfortable with I am not going to make them change all that and make it uncomfortable.”
She said the only child that it was a little awkward to come out to was her 11-year-old step son because he has Asperger’s syndrome. At first, she said she had to be more masculine around him and gradually change.
“Now he is cool with it,” she said. “And my twins, almost 3-year-old girls are too young to care, they just know that daddy loves them.”
Serving her country while finding gender identity
Two weeks out of high school, Duarte-Clements went into the Army. Originally, she wanted to be a nurse but after realizing the time commitment of schooling, she went to do the “next best thing” in her opinion, which was being a police officer.
Wanting to help people is what called her to serve.
“I have always been driven for public service, I can’t quite understand it,” she said. “It has always been the way I am wired.”
Duarte was deployed in Baghdad in 2003 with a mechanized infantry unit out of Germany. While there, she said she always contended with her sexuality. She had gone back and forth asking herself if she was bisexual or just gay.
“Then I kind of researched it and I came to the realization that it has nothing to do with [sexuality,]” Duarte-Clements said. “I was missing something. I had the perfect life: my wife was beautiful, intelligent, I had good children, I had a good job, money was not a problem, everything was perfect. But I was still miserable.”
Duarte-Clements said when she figured out her sexuality, she could not really pursue it because she was still married.
“It was in my head, stuffed away,” she said. “I knew that going in the Army and I contended with it, tried to process it and understand. My wife found out I was chatting with men online. She got pissed off, rightfully so. It is kind of a shocker, but over time we fixed it and she supported me and told me to go figure it out.”
After serving 15 years with the Army, Duarte-Clements was discharged due to a diagnosis of PTSD and Meniere’s disease.
“My PTSD is not the extreme version,” she said. “It is more emotional and a lot of it was guilt because I made it back whole. I was in the middle of Baghdad, but I never had to see anyone get physically hurt. I was so blessed. I was in an infantry, they are on the front lines.”
She also had a reoccurring dream that she was going to be deployed over and over again. “Not that I feared it,” she said. “I would go again in a blink of an eye if asked.”
Dating and life after the military
After two divorces and a newly-embraced gender identity, Duarte-Clements moved to Greensboro and then to Julian, North Carolina, where she lives now. Duarte-Clements now works as a private security police officer at the Department of Social Services building in High Point. For a while, dating seemed nearly impossible and felt strange to Duarte-Clements.
“It would be easier if I was just straight or just gay,” Duarte-Clements said jokingly because she said people tend to oversexualize her or reject her for being too feminine. “Sometimes I contemplate giving up the hormones and just becoming a guy with boobies.”
After dating around, and figuring out what she really wanted, Duarte happily found her current girlfriend. “She treats me better than anyone ever has,” Duarte-Clements said. “She treats me more like a lady than anyone ever has.”
A woman living as a man in the United States military and transitioning from male to female while finishing police officer training in one of the most trans intolerant states in the U.S. makes Duarte-Clements’s life sound really difficult.
“If it did nothing else, it gave me confidence to know I can overcome anything,” she said reflecting on her life so far.
When Duarte-Clements first started her job as a police officer, she tried to work at the Guilford County Courthouse. But in order to do that, she would have to “abide by male standards,” which meant that she had to cut her hair to work. “Ironically, I am getting my named changed through the Guilford County courthouse,” Duarte-Clements said with a laugh.
After that job did not end up working out, she found another police officer position working at the Department of Social Services building where she can “abide by female standards” by providing a note from her doctor at the VA.
“The biggest problem I have is when people, in general, assume that being transgender is automatically something sexual in nature,” Duarte-Clements said. “That it is some form of sexual deviance. It is not that at all. It has nothing to do with that whatsoever. Gender identity and sexual orientation are completely different things. It is not a choice.”
Duarte-Clements sought out Youtube videos of transgender people going through the same thing she was going through to feel more connected.
“All of them had the same exact story,” she said. “They knew they were different as kids, they knew something was missing, they started seeing that and started to do more masculine things so they did not have to live that way. It was like ‘OK I will go the other way and just like confirm my masculinity.’ Play sports, play with cars, go into the military, get a wife, have kids. Still, something’s missing. Once they came to the realization and transitioning, it all changed and they were finally happy.”
As far as going through with those big changes, such as sex reassignment surgery, Duarte-Clements said she is definitely not getting top surgery because she wants her breasts to be natural. As far as down there, she said she goes back and forth with the decision.
“At the end of the day I do not need it to do what I need to do,” she said. “I may decide eventually that it is time to get rid of it.”
Emma’s future and beyond
The future’s looking bright and optimistic for Duarte-Clements. Regardless of what she decides to do in her journey of transitioning, she has big plans for the future and for people like her in Greensboro. She wants to start writing an autobiography and she has even dreamed up an idea for a book series with a trans hero. She also has big plans to open a clothing store for trans people to shop and feel accepted. She would call it Emma’s Corner.
“I would like to open a store in town for clothes that accommodate people like me,” she said. “I know some of the struggles I had as far as clothes. Having a male body, it is still hard to find clothes that fit.”
Duarte-Clements would also like to have a seamstress available at the shop so that people can come in, pick out clothes and get fitted. She would also like to have a wide variety of wigs and shoes because those two items have been the toughest things for her to find.
“Someone is always going to find something to say about you so you might as well just be you,” she said offering some advice to younger trans people. “I live my life according to me not society’s expectations or what they think I should be.”
Duarte-Clements has walked around downtown and is beginning to seriously look at places for her shop. She said she would like to get started by the end of this year.
“I got to the one year point with my transition and realized it has been a great journey so far,” Duarte-Clements said. “It has been really positive– it hasn’t stood in the way of anything that I am doing in my life. I read so many stories where trans people have a hard time within society or the dysphoria of themselves. They are depressed, miserable and some are afraid to come out. I guess I just wanted to put out there, for once, just a really interesting story and two, I want to try to inspire others who are possibly realized they can do it in spite of the world.”
Katie Murawski is the editor of YES! Weekly. She is from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in film studies from Appalachian State University in 2017.