Sheri Swokowski knows first-hand what the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2009 is trying to prevent.

The act, introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Swokowski lived the first 57 years of her life as a man named Jeff, a man who was a colonel and director of human resources for the Wisconsin National Guard.

In 2006, Swokowski went to Fort Belvoir, Va. as a lead instructor at the U.S. Army Force Management School. Swokowski taught classes as a male through September of 2007.

Before the next rotation of classes began, Swokowski decided to begin her transition from male to female and spoke with her employer's HR director, a large government contractor, about it.

"They felt obliged to have me back because they made a commitment," Swokowski said. "I made offers to educate staff about my transition, but they were refused."

The day after Thanksgiving, 2007, Swokowski was preparing to teach the course when the director of the school wanted to see her.

"The first words out of his mouth were, 'Thanks for coming back to teach, but we've already hired your replacement,'" Swokowski said. "And that wasn't true, because my replacement didn't start for several months after."

As the 30-minute conversation continued, the three-star general said Swokowski hadn't done anything criminal. At the start of the conversation, the general referred to Swokowski's decision as "her issue." At the end, it was "her problem."

"The mindset in the Army is that being transgender is a mental disease or deficiency," Swokowski said. "If you are trans-gender, you are not suitable for military service."

While she was in the military, Swokowski knew being identified as a transgender individual could lead to discharge. She kept her feelings about wanting to be a female "deeply suppressed for decades."

Only when she neared retirement did the desire to be a woman blossom. Swokowski spent more than $50,000 of her own money to have sexual reassignment surgery as well as facial reconstruction and breast augmentation surgeries. They were completed between October 2007 and April 2009.

Swokowski left the management school and came back to DeForest, where she still maintains a home.

"I was awfully disappointed, because I didn't see what they apparently saw," Swokowski said. "It's a mindset, and it wasn't going to deter me from continuing to be successful and continue to make contributions to society."

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) testified in favor of the non-discrimination act on Sept. 23 in front of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

"To hear Sheri tell her story is heartbreaking. She knows she was qualified for the position, but she also recognizes that her former employer didn't see her as Sheri - they only saw her gender identity," Baldwin testified. "The sad reality is that Sheri's life and her livelihood would be different today if ENDA were the law of the land."

Swokowski is again employed by the Army, this time at the Pentagon. Since June 2008, she's been a management analyst for a three-star general, helping the general manage Army installations around the world.

Swokowski is at the top of the pay scale for her job and has interviewed for numerous higher-ranking positions, but so far, hasn't been hired. She said she believes part of that may be due to discrimination.

"There is a clear record demonstrating the need for these protections: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees are harassed, fired, not hired and passed over for advancement without regard to their merit," Baldwin testified. "We knew then that irrational hate and fear have no place in our work place and now is the time to declare - as a nation - that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is unlawful, as well."

Swokowski calls the non-discrimination act a landmark piece of legislation to become law.

"It's critical," Swokowski said. "There are some protections in place so employers can't discriminate on the basis of sex, race or religion, but there's a whole other environment out there that's not being afforded the same protection."

• In 1982, Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to add sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination statutes. At the time, only 41 municipalities and eight counties in the entire United States offered limited protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

• Since Wisconsin passed its statute in 1982, 20 more states and the District of Columbia (roughly 44 percent of the population) have passed similar protective measures.

• Twelve states and Washington D.C. also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

• Eighty-five percent of the Fortune 500 companies extend protections based on sexual orientation and more than one-third do so on the basis of gender identity.

- From Rep. Tammy Baldwin's testimony

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