These military sisters used to be brothers: 'Our situation is so unique'

Kara and Natalie pose for a selfie in front of two large trees.
Kara Corcoran, left, with Natalie Corcoran in the Olympic National Forest. (Courtesy of Kara Corcoran)

When siblings Kara and Natalie Corcoran were growing up in their Irish-German Catholic military family outside of Boston in the 1990s and early 2000s, their bedrooms were just across the hall from one another. But they spent an inordinate time apart, in their own rooms, doors closed tight — both trying, they've recently learned, to figure out their identity in strikingly similar ways.

"We were terrified of being our true selves," Kara, 37, tells Yahoo Life, "and it hurts to know that we were struggling with the same thing."

Unbeknownst to each other, both were slowly coming to terms with the fact that they were transgender, trying to understand their gender dysphoria — a psychological conflict between one's sex at birth and one's gender identity — though they had no name for it at the time.

The siblings began life as brothers — Kara as a popular, outgoing athlete who dated lots of girls, and Natalie as a "shy kid ... an athlete-scholar type," Natalie says. "People thought I was gay."

It took until last month, when the siblings took an epic hiking and road trip together in Washington's Olympic National Forest, for them to meet each other as they truly are.

"It was technically the first time I met my sister," says Kara, who began transitioning in 2018, of Natalie, 40, who began her transition in 2019. And while looking back on all the time lost is painful because they "could have been much closer," it's exciting for both of them to now look toward a future together.

"I feel our situation is so unique, where any given perspective can elicit every possible emotion," says Kara, adding that it gives her "purpose to fight for our freedom to be authentic."

Their situation is so unique, in fact, that there don't seem to be any statistics on how often two siblings can be trans — something reported on several years ago with news that Hollywood sisters Lilly and Lana Wachowski are both transgender. As for the number of U.S. transgender troops in active duty or in the reserves, it's estimated to be around 15,000 of all 1.3 million troops, according to 2014 data.

"I am closer to Kara than before coming out," says Natalie, "as we share a common experience and have helped each other on our respective transition experiences." Grappling with an adjustment period after Kara came out, she admits, "helped me to give those close to me, and myself, patience in my own gender transition."

Kara shared photos of their recent road trip to Instagram, writing, "We couldn't be more polar personalities, but we have the same values our parents instilled in us. I am proud and happy for her, and this weekend was soooo much fun!"

Forging their bond is just the latest, and very welcome, chapter in their lives — which for both has included being married, having kids, separating from spouses and transitioning while in the military, where they remain dedicated careerists.

"This is a very common theme that I see with transgender people, especially people of [our] age and older transgender individuals, which is they try to prove their masculinity," says Natalie. "So, sports. And then what's one of the most masculine things you can do? Military." Plus, they were raised with the strong influence of their father, a West Point graduate and former Army officer.

Natalie, who lives in Washington state, is an Army lieutenant colonel who oversees supply and maintenance contracts as a multifunctional logistician, executing several Iraq and Afghanistan deployments since 2005. And Kara, who commissioned in 2008, becoming an Army major and master parachutist who served twice in Afghanistan, was most recently a battalion executive officer to a 600-soldier tank battalion stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas.

Their dedication goes back to the values their father instilled in them, including "patriotism," says Kara. "Our father taught us how to be men — good men in the world. So, he didn't do anything wrong. ... Those values that we have and that he gave to us made us better human beings."

That doesn't mean their dad isn't struggling with their transitions.

"For our father, it has been tough, because he lost his one son, and then he lost another one ... and I think when people are hanging on to that former person, it causes a lot of tension," says Natalie. "Our mother has been trying to walk the line between being a supportive mother and being a supportive spouse to our dad, and that's a very hard line for her to walk."

Natalie and Kara try to reassure their parents, she adds, about "how supportive they've been. How, at the time, we didn't have all these resources and such. But I think for our father, he is still hung up on the way he grew up. ... He was very big on being a good spouse and being a good parent, and when the transition happened for both Kara and I, it broke up our families and broke up our marriages. So, for him, he feels like a failure because of those things."

Coming out

Kara says she had a very strong inkling of who she was by the time she was 4 or 5 years old. "In probably the most prolific memory in my mind, I am holding a pair of scissors and wanting to self-mutilate myself. Because I didn't want to have the equipment that I had."

Two photos of Kara and Natalie show them before and after they transitioned.
Kara and Natalie. (Courtesy of Kara Corcoran)

She adds, "I struggled in a vacuum. And it wasn't my parents' fault. It wasn't anybody's fault." It wasn't until she watched the 1994 film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which has a (problematic) reference to a transgender woman, that, she says, she had the realization, "My God, I can't believe that this is possible." Still, she struggled "all throughout being a child, being a teenager," finding distraction only when she went to college and then to Afghanistan. And when she came back, she says, she knew that "I need to start living my life."

Kara began her transition just days before she and her (now former) wife became parents to twins; because of her timing, she was among those able to achieve "exempt" status from the military's transgender ban, reinstated by the Trump administration in 2018 after it had been overturned by the Obama administration. She came out to Natalie, who was stationed in Germany at the time, over the phone, and was stunned and confused by how well she took the news.

Kara's coming-out served as a "catalyst" for Natalie, who said nothing at the time but began to dip her toe into the idea of transitioning — shaving her body hair, getting women's clothing and makeup lessons, and connecting with cross-dresser groups. But she did so with much trepidation, as years earlier she'd discussed some of her feelings in couples counseling with her wife, before they were married. "And she was very clear that if I was ever to fully transition, that we could not be together," Natalie says, admitting that then, when asked "point-blank" if she was transgender, she said she was not.

The Corcoran brothers in dress uniform smile for the camera as they stand outside a brick building.
Military siblings. (Courtesy of Kara Corcoran)

But between Kara's coming-out and the upcoming military ban, she says, "It really made me think: Am I living my true life? Am I being authentic to myself?" By mid-2019, Natalie had reached her "breaking point," right at the same time she was sent on a military assignment to South Korea without her kids or her wife, who told her: "You need to figure out if you're going to be happy continuing to live as a male or if you're going to be happy as a female."

Natalie struggled, more than anything, with the idea of breaking up her marriage, especially as a devout Catholic, whose religion taught her "you don't get divorced, you honor your vows — and transgender, LGBTQIA people are bad," she explains. "Religion had gotten me through a lot of depression and a lot of hard times in the military, but it was also preventing me from being my true self. So, there was a lot of internal turmoil." After some intensive soul-searching and therapy, Natalie came out to her family — and to Kara.

"It finally made sense, why she was so accepting [of me]," recalls Kara, who then tried to help Natalie get an exemption from the military ban to start her transition but was unsuccessful, meaning Natalie had to wait until it was reversed again, in 2021, by the Biden administration.

Out in the military — and as parents

For the most part, Natalie, who was stationed in California previously, has found much acceptance at work, saying that it has been "a matter of educating people" and that she has been "very fortunate."

With her children, ages 9 and 10, she says, "Both kids are great ... but it is taking more time for my son to adjust to the change. My daughter feels like it's kind of neat for her, because there's another female to do hair stuff and makeup, clothes and all those things ... whereas my son ... lost a father figure."

The Corcoran sisters pose for a photo in front of a stream.
The sisters in the Olympic National Forest. (Courtesy of Kara Corcoran)

Still, she adds, "They're very resilient and they are very accepting, and I'm very humbled to have children like that. And I credit that to my ex, who I'm very amicable with."

Kara's twins, now 5 and living across the country from her with their mother, have only ever known her as Kara. "But I am their father. So, it’s a very weird, strange thing," she says, recalling when she went to pick them up from school a while ago and one of her girls declared, "'My daddy's here to pick me up!' because my ex still strongly emphasized that with them. ... But I was like, 'I'm a girl,'" and that was that.

Military life as a trans woman has been often frustrating, which she believes is largely based on being stationed not on the West Coast, as Natalie was, but in Georgia, Alabama, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. "I feel like every day for the last two years while I was in my current job, I would find myself being misgendered, or I would have to correct somebody a lot of times, and it just got so old," says Kara. "There are still some people I know that didn't accept me for who I was, who didn't respect me as a human being. But that didn't stop me from doing my job."

Plus, she adds, "I have a more aggressive personality, so it's harder for people to grasp that I could be transgender. I just ran into a classmate from college in Yellowstone National Park three days ago, and he was like, 'I was so blown away that of all people, you are the most macho man, and now you're a woman!' It has been difficult."

The "one good saving grace," she says, is that she's found solace through other women in combat arms, including by being part of a professional women's tackle football team, allowing her to feel "accepted by the majority of my peer women."

Seeing how much more is understood today about kids being transgender, when each sister struggled alone for so long, is bittersweet — even more complicated by the current wave of anti-trans sentiment and legislation.

"Am I somewhat envious that I could not start my transition earlier and have [some of the current] resources? Yeah, I won't lie. There's a little piece of me," Natalie says. "I think, though, with the very positive support relationships in my life — Kara being one of them — and embracing myself, I accept the fact that, hey, that's where we are in time and space." For both herself and her sister — and the country — she says, "I have hope and faith."

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