'She Pivots' with Paula Neira–a Navy Veteran, Nurse, Lawyer and Transgender Advocate

Despite having served in mine combat warfare during Desert Storm, the biggest battle of Neira's life was her fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the military.

Paula Neira
Paula Neira left the Navy in 1991, but she continued to serve her country as an ER nurse, lawyer, and transgender advocate.
(Image credit: Future)

Welcome to “She Pivots,” the podcast in partnership with Marie Claire about women, their stories, and how their pivot became their success. 

Ever since Paula Neira was a child, she knew she wanted to serve her country. And ever since she was a child, she also knew she felt a disconnect with the gender assigned to her at birth. It was the 1960s and what Neira knew in her heart—that she was really a girl—wasn’t even in the lexicon. 

After watching a television interview of Renée Richards, a transgender pioneer in tennis (at the time she was labeled a transsexual), Neira immediately identified with her. 

“I could say with clarity from the time I was 9 or 10, my sole purpose, my sole focus was to be an officer in the Navy, at the same time I was beginning to question my gender,” she says.

In 1985, Neira fulfilled her lifelong dream and graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy. She would rise the ranks and later in her career, the secretary of the Navy named her co-sponsor of the USNS Harvey Milk. Neira is a veteran, having served in mine warfare combat during Operation Desert Storm. 

But there is so much more to Neira’s story. Just a glance at the degrees that trail her name⁠—M.S.N., J.D., R.N., C.E.N.⁠—are a mouthful. The impressive array of letters herald all she has done to not only navigate job discrimination, but to fight relentlessly for LGBTQ+ rights on a national scale.

Her new, post-military chapter began in 1991, when she returned home from the Persian Gulf. She felt she could no longer silence her will to live as her true self. “So, I ended my time in the Navy. That was probably the biggest pivot in my life.”

In her quest to live authentically, Neira entered nursing. As an ER nurse, Neira saw the inequities that existed between doctors and nurses. So, she went on to pursue law in hopes of transforming male-dominated fields such as medicine and the military. 

After graduating with her law degree in 2001, she moved to Washington, DC, to help fight for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), a policy that barred openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people from military service firsthand.

“You know, the fight to change the military regulations to allow LGBTQ+ people to serve authentically—those policies were always grounded in prejudice,” Neira says. “They were never grounded in military needs. They were always grounded in ignorance and prejudice. They hurt the country. They undermined the military. They were a cancer on the core values.”

From serving her country, to becoming a nurse, then pursuing law, what ties each of her different careers and paths together is a call to service. Her story comes full circle when she confronts the very organization she loved so deeply and served so proudly: the Navy. 

You can listen to Neira’s captivating journey on the She Pivots podcast below.

Emily Tisch Sussman sits down with women weekly on She Pivots to learn about how their personal journeys led to their pivot. Listen to the full conversation on She Pivots, wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe, leave us a rating and follow us at @ShePivotsThePodcast! 

Emily Tisch Sussman
Emily Tisch Sussman

Emily Tisch Sussman is the Founder and Host of “She Pivots,” the podcast in partnership with Marie Claire about women, their stories, and how their pivot became their success. She is a contributing editor to Maire Claire and the guest host of the Marie Claire Instagram Live series “Getting Down to Business.”