Justice

My Reaction to the One Tweet Saying I Could Finally Serve My Country

I discovered through a single tweet that the Pentagon announced a dramatic shift in U.S. military policy on Monday. A friend sent it, knowing how important the issue is for me as a transgender man who serves as a volunteer in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary—I would have liked nothing more than to serve in active duty with the Coast Guard before, but I hit the recruitment age limit three years ago.

According to a statement released from Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, the Pentagon is finalizing a plan to allow transgender Americans to serve openly in the armed forces as soon as early next year. Specifically, Carter calls the current approach "outdated," "confusing" and "inconsistent," establishing a working group to determine the details of a change in policy. Headed by Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson, the working group will have six months to study the implications of ending the ban on transgender military service.

Notably, Carter writes that the committee will "start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness."

This is huge for me.

Transgender individuals have been barred from serving in the U.S. armed forces for as long as I have been alive, and the estimated 15,000 transgender troops that already serve throughout the U.S. military are expected to serve in silence, or risk discharge. Now, that all changes.

In addition to Carter's groundbreaking announcement of the pending change in policy, the Secretary of Defense also made it much harder for current transgender military personnel to be discharged based on gender identity. Elevating the final decision on such discharges to the Under Secretary of Defense, Carter essentially ensures that no actively serving transgender soldier will be discharged in the next six months. (Making such a high ranking official the decision maker will make separations incredibly unlikely, although not impossible.)

I've waited for more than a decade for this announcement.

Not all transgender individuals are interested in military service. It's likely that there will be a portion of the transgender population that will likely feel no impact to this at all, other than another step toward our eventual equality.

For some of us, however, the decision that comes next year could be potentially life-changing.

I avoided the U.S. military academies when I graduated from high school, preferring instead to attending a private liberal arts college because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Having come out as queer already, I couldn't imagine going back into the closet completely for a career, even if it was a career that I desperately wanted. I hoped that I would find what I was looking for in academia and that I would never look back.

But I did look back. Graduating from college four years later—and now identifying as a queer, transgender man—I still wanted to serve in the military but now two separate doors blocked my way: the legislative ban on LGB service, known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the separate Department of Defense ban on transgender service. One would prevent me from seeking a commission because of my sexual orientation and the other would prevent me from serving if I began a medical gender transition, because I would be seen as genitally "unfit" by the U.S. government.

Even if I didn't medically transition, being out as a transgender person was enough to bar me from the armed forces under the law. Unless I could keep my gender identity secret.

And that's when I joined the US Coast Guard Auxiliary as a woman in 2009.

Although I would have been allowed to serve openly in the Auxiliary as a transgender man, because it is an all-volunteer force-multiplier of the U.S. Coast Guard and does not fall under the same restrictions that bar trans service under military law, I wanted to see what it was like. If I could live my private live as a man but publicly be partially closeted, then I thought that maybe I could survive in the military without transitioning until the ban was eventually lifted on trans service. It was painful, but I waited to see what would happen.

Set against this backdrop, the 2010 repeal of the ban on gay service was a particularly bittersweet moment. I had been a very small part of the lifting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" during my professional work in LGBT advocacy, and one barrier had been removed from my path to a military career. I was ecstatic. At the same time, another huge roadblock still loomed -- the Uniform Military Code of Justice lines that listed transgender people as unfit for service. So I kept waiting, working in my civilian career and volunteering with the Auxiliary. I received a certification as boat crew. I eventually began providing training support to search-and-rescue helicopter teams on the water as a part of the Fixed-Wing/Helo Operations Training Team. I loved every second of it.

I waited to medically transition until I was so unhappy that I couldn't take it anymore.

Four years after I began the experiment of trying to live part of my life as a woman, I realized that the jig was up. I couldn't do it anymore. Knowing that you are closing the door actively on one dream in order to fulfill another is a terrible realization. But for my health, happiness and sanity, I knew that I had to do it. So I started hormone therapy and at that moment, ended any prospect of a military career.

I mostly moved on, and I do work today that I greatly enjoy. I also still serve as a volunteer alongside active-duty troops in the Coast Guard Auxiliary doing the same search-and-rescue work that I loved before, but now I do it as myself. Some of the warmest reception that I received upon medically transitioning was from my fellow Coasties, and putting on a male uniform, especially after top surgery, makes me feel whole in a way that I could not have previously imagined.

I still feel called to serve as a full member of the military. I'm certain that other trans people do, too.

With every birthday that has passed, I've had the window of opportunity for the armed forces narrow. (Even if the ban is lifted on transgender service in 2016, I will be too old to join as an active duty Coast Guardsman.) The decision that's reached in six months will still have a huge impact on my life, however, and the lives of any other transgender Americans who want to serve their country in the armed forces.

Depending on what happens that day, whether or not the ban is fully lifted, I will feel that much more equally a part of this country. And if there is still opportunity for me to serve as a reservist, today may be the day that I call a recruiter. I want to be ready when the ban is finally lifted.