After retiring from the Army, she turned her attention to public health. At UMKC and as a private consultant, she facilitates training in HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and transgender employment.
By Mark Thomas
Suzanne Wheeler spent 32 years in the Army, retiring as a colonel. A combat veteran, she commanded tank units from platoon to brigade size. At the time of her retirement, Wheeler was the highest-ranking transgender officer in the military.
After leaving military service, Wheeler said, she wanted to work in public health.
“I could have made a lot more money in the military industrial complex, but for me, that’s not what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to chase my passions.”
She spent about a year working for Planned Parenthood, where she was the liaison for the Mid-America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
Wheeler now works as a senior research associate in the Collaborative to Advance Health Services at the UMKC School of Nursing and Health Studies. Primarily, her work focuses on two different grants: one in family planning and reproductive health training and the other in HIV and AIDS research and training.
She explains: “I work more as a facilitator with all the organizations around the United States that are focused on training the HIV/AIDS workforce. Locally, any organization can reach out to us for CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] resources. We’re the middlemen linking folks up. We train providers, we train health centers, we train community organizations – from the social worker helping the new AIDS patient to the doctors doing the research.”
A new research project that Wheeler is enthusiastic about is the Transgender Willow program, designed to train peer mentors for trans women, primarily trans women of color, who have HIV or are at high risk.
“It’s really exciting. ... I never thought I would be involved in this kind of work when I came out of the military,” she said.
In addition to her role with UMKC, Wheeler is a principal in a consulting company called EXPIN Group (Experts in Inclusion). Both EXPIN and UMKC are members of the Mid-America Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
“EXPIN helps go through and break down myths and lies about transgender employees for employers,” Wheeler said. “We take the leadership through the business argument for inclusion. Retention of trans employees? These are some of the most loyal employees if they feel accepted in the environment. We start with the leadership and then go out to the workforce. We offer what amounts to a Transgender 101. We stress that just because someone works in your environment doesn’t mean it impacts your personal choices. This is for the companies’ mission.”
Wheeler notes that MAGLCC has provided many initial contacts for both programs.
“For UMKC, the networking has been fabulous, with groups like the AIDS Service Foundation. Lots of cross-pollination. It’s allowed me to talk with folks from a lot of the HIV/AIDS organizations and share the information about resources available. The chamber has helped break down the information barriers on services offered through the CDC.”
Wheeler talked a bit about her decision to locate in Kansas City.
“Kansas City is my hometown. I have four kids. I could have gone anywhere. We have an incredible, eclectic, wonderful city that has really changed from the city I grew up in. That’s the reason I decided to stay here. I can’t think of any place better, even with its challenges.”
About those challenges? “I’ve considered running for office,” Wheeler says with a smile.