by Michelle Willard | photo by H.N. James
The first thing Carla Lewis will tell you about herself is that she’s perpetually late.
On July 27, 2008, the fact that she and her wife Jamie Combs were a little late may have saved their lives as much as it changed it. “We were running late to see a youth production of Annie,” Lewis explained, remembering the day that pushed her into activism. When they arrived at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Lewis held open the door for a man with a guitar case, not knowing the case contained, not an instrument, but a gun.
The man, Jim David Adkisson, barged his way into the production of Annie Jr. and opened fire. He killed two and injured six before church members could stop the rampage. Adkisson targeted the church because it welcomed LGBT+ people.
“That really pushed me to start using my voice,” said Lewis, a software engineer who lives in Antioch.
Her road to activism was a reluctant one before she garnered national attention for a selfie and became the poster girl for transgender veterans.
At 18, Lewis enlisted in the United States Air Force in hopes of becoming an astronaut. Because her career track was top secret, she had to be vetted, which included an examination of her medical records.
In the years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when being transgendered was seen as something that could open a soldier to blackmail, the admission to a USAF psychologist turned up on her clearance check, which resulted in an investigation. It was difficult for the Air Force to prove she was gay because she was married to a woman at the time and the father of two children. In 1991, the court-martial was dismissed and she was given an honorable discharge.
It would be nearly a decade before Carla came out completely and began her transition — after a suicide attempt in July 1999.
As she lay in her East Tennessee hospital bed recovering from the pills she had taken, Carl Justin Aldridge died and Carla Lewis was born.
Over the next few years, Lewis put her head down and went to work running a business-to-business computer company. She got her kids back and moved in with Combs. They married in 2013.
In 2005, she volunteered with Equality Knoxville. In 2008, she accompanied Combs on her duties as South Atlantic regional director of PFLAG.
And then she witnessed the hatred one man had toward the LGBT+ community as he gunned down her friends.
After the shooting, Lewis began speaking at rallies and organizing roadside campaigns. In 2011, she even pressured General Mills into pulling a transphobic commercial.
“Ever since then I’ve tried to stay active in the community,” Lewis said.
After that, Lewis helped organize a national equality march in 2009 and Knoxville Pride in 2010.
In 2014, she moved to Nashville to be a software developer for a pathology lab. The pathology company lets its employees dress down on Fridays.
The casual Friday T-shirt she donned read “Trans Veteran: I fought for your right to hate me.” She took a selfie (left) wearing the shirt and posted it to social media.
It was a selfie heard around the world.
The post was shared thousands of times and she was interviewed by media outlets from around the globe. “I became an unwitting spokesperson for trans veterans,” Lewis said.
Now every time there’s a news report about transgender troops, the selfie reappears. It popped up again after President Donald Trump tweeted in July about reinstating the ban on transgender troops.
She said she wasn’t surprised by Trump’s tweet because she “expected something bad to happen from him.”
While she was relieved when former President Barack Obama issued an executive order that allowed transgender troops to serve openly, she knew that any executive order could easily be repealed by another executive order. “Trump changed it with a tweet,” Lewis said. “Obama could have done it sooner in his term. He could have made it a legislative action.”
Since the tweet, she’s been concerned about her friends who are actively serving in the military and are out as transgender. “They only came out because they were made to feel safe by Obama,” she said. Now they have to worry about their careers and their personal safety. “Trump’s presence and actions have an effect,” Lewis said. “It’s bringing out the worst in this where it was held in check,” she said. “It’s one thing to have these thoughts; it’s another to express them.”