Last Tuesday, The U.S. Supreme Court disappointed trans military servicemembers, activists, and allies when it gave the Trump administration a 5-4 vote against fast-tracking a case involving its signature trans military ban.
Though the ban won’t go into effect immediately, as two lower court injunctions continue to block it, SCOTUS has left the door of discrimination open and resisted a chance to rule on the legality of the ban itself. Mirroring many of the stigmatizing and silencing elements of the now-repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, trans servicemembers and their supporters are experiencing a range of emotions from fear, to anger, to disappointment.
In a Democracy NOW! interview, ACLU Staff Attorney Chase Strangio said, “This is a question about whether the largest employer in our country can tell transgender people that they are not welcome, that they cannot actively be who they are and retain their employment. So we should be incredibly concerned not only about what this means for trans people, for our employment, for our healthcare, for our survival in absolutely every context, but also whether or not we’re going to accept a government policy that’s premised on the idea that we don’t exist, and that if we do exist, we should not be protected in any way.”
As is often the case, we usually only hear from white trans service members. To level the field, we talked with five trans people of color who have served or are currently serving in the military about their experiences navigating the U.S. military.
Military branch: Army
Enlisted: 2003-2015 (12 years)
I actually started my transition in 2012 after "Don't ask, don't tell" was repealed. When I found out that the DADT repeal did not include transgender people, I still felt like I lived under the remanence of that policy. So where I was able to openly identify as gay, that was never really was my forté. I just had to really keep myself quiet and try to skate under the radar as a trans woman and a person of color in the military. It was a rather difficult time. The military is a very hyper-masculine environment and for a transmasculine person to transition in the military, it's easier for them because hyper-masculinity is tolerated. It's accepted in the military. It’s easier for them than it is for trans women altogether.
Everyone has a different reason why they join the military. For me, it was following a legacy that my family has had. For my husband, he wanted the education and to put himself forward from whatever situation he was in before. So everyone has a different reason why they join the military, but I think we all play a bigger part and we can't want change if we're not all willing to sit at the roundtable together and have a very civil conversation about that.
Military branch: Navy
Enlisted: 2012-Present (7 years)
I was just tired of hiding who I was. I wanted to live my truth, be authentic to myself, and since Obama pushed for us to be able to serve, I figured, “Why should I wait until I get out [to come out]? I want to be happy now instead of waiting until later. I'd rather be happy than miserable.” So I just decided to take a leap and got support from family and friends. With the Obama memo in place at that time, I felt like everything was okay. Now things are changing with the new policies in place. I've had some anxiety battles not knowing what would be going on career-wise. When I first joined, I did want to do 20 years and retire out of this, but ever since that whole situation with the troops, I decided to go ahead and get out. I have like a year left. It is mentally taxing to be a part of an organization that doesn't support me being who I am. And I feel like I was looked at as less than.
Military branch: Army
Enlisted: 1995 – 2003 (8 years)
I began my transition after coming home from basic training. It was during the beginning of “Don't ask, don't tell” — I still remember the question of “Are you homosexual?” on the application and being told in the military processing station to take a black marker and blacken that line out and do not answer that question. When I would go for my monthly drills, of course, people would notice something was different, but they weren't allowed to ask me. Once I started to physically transition, I never hid who I was, but I never talked about it either.
As a progressive society, we should all be shocked, alarmed, and dismayed by a government that blatantly condones discrimination upon its citizens. It's sad because my trans siblings have fought and died for this country right alongside our cisgender brothers and sisters. When you're in war, it doesn't matter. You don't have time to care about a person's skin color, their gender identity, or sexual orientation. What matters is that the people standing beside you will have your back. Being able to serve freely and openly is a human basic right that we all should be afforded.
Military branch: National Guard and Army
Enlisted: 2013 – present (5.5 years)
I transitioned when I was in the [National] Guard, so I just did it without my chain of command knowing because at that time we couldn't openly serve. I just did everything low-key. But once I knew that I could, I told my chain of command, which they were already noticing. My voice was getting deeper, so they kind of figured.
Once I got to active duty, I had to go through the whole spiel again of me being trans and having to go through therapy again and getting medicine and all this stuff. It wasn't bad. It's just a lot of waiting.
As far as surgeries and stuff like that, that was my big concern when I was in Korea, because I was trying to plan it out, and I didn't know exactly how to go about it or if I needed to wait. I was going to go through the military, but I was like with Trump being very indecisive about us, I was like, I'll just do it on my own. My chain of command was completely on board for that, because I was like, “I don't want to get a ‘yes,’ and then I get told ‘no’ and then I'm stuck.”
Military branch: Marines
Enlisted: 2008-2015 (7 years)
I can count the number of people I told on one hand [that I was trans]. Although the equal opportunity officer told me if anything was to ever happen, to let him know and he would take care of it, technically there was nothing he could do legally about it. I remember my last year on active duty. I remember they were talking about it and it had been brought up in conversations online but it was all talk. There was no talk of it happening in 2015. At that point, I was like, “Yeah, it’d be nice to stay in, but at the same time I don’t know if it’ll happen or not. If I don’t get out, I was going to go crazy because I can’t be out and visible.”
I had been out, as in, I told people I liked to wear women’s clothes, but it wasn’t until I was [enlisted] that I found and realized that I was transgender. I knew some people online, but not in person. There were a few of them who were local in San Diego. It’s a large military town. When I went out as myself, I always worried that there’s a chance a Marine or their spouse would see me and my wife and out me.