Transgender people have been able to openly serve in the military since 2016. (July 26, 2017)
Carla Lewis enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1990. But the next year, after a background check for a top-secret position revealed that she had seen a counselor for gender identity issues, she was honorably discharged for what her military papers described as "Conditions That Interfere With Military Service — Not Disability — Mental Disorders."
She is transgender. While she had been designated a male at birth, she identifies as a female and transitioned to that after leaving the Air Force. She said her discharge was a black mark that made it difficult to get other jobs.
That's why she and her active-duty transgender friends had been "elated" by the Obama administration's decision in 2016 to allow transgender service members to serve openly, she said.
But a surprise announcement by President Trump on Twitter on Wednesday banning transgender Americans from serving "in any capacity in the U.S. military" has angered and bewildered transgender soldiers and veterans, with some active service members now wondering if they've put themselves at risk by outing themselves as transgender when the Obama administration allowed them to do so.
"Some of them are even approaching retirement, and now that they've come out, they're [screwed]," said Lewis, 46, who is now an activist for transgender rights. "All over the world, there's units in the place that depend on a transgender member of that team.… I have one friend who told me today that 'people believe we can't do our jobs, and right now this is disrupting our ability to do our jobs.' "
Transgender people have already served in the military in large numbers, though in the past it was mostly in secret, with gender transitions — often with the use of hormones and sometimes surgeries — usually coming after the end of service. (All the veterans quoted in this story transitioned after leaving the military and are identified by their current names.)
A 2012 study by the UCLA law school's Williams Institute estimated that about 15,500 transgender people were serving on active duty, in the National Guard or in reserve forces, and that there are more than 134,000 transgender veterans.
In his tweets, Trump claimed that the military "cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."
LGBTQ advocacy groups disputed that assertion and threatened legal action if the president tries to turn his tweets into policy. Hundreds of activists turned out in Times Square in New York to protest.
"I'm enraged, because this puts people at risk," said Terrance Kayton, 34, an Oakland activist who transitioned to male after serving in the Navy from 2001 to 2005. "My friends, some are still active duty, and they have created spaces, supposedly safe spaces, for them to serve openly for a year now, and this just puts them in harm's way."
Emma Shinn, a Denver attorney who specializes in military criminal defense, said Trump's announcement was "dangerous not only to our service members but to trans people across the nation, because it sends a message that we're not equal, that we're not good enough."
Shinn said she enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994 and served in six deployments, including a combat posting in Fallujah, Iraq, where she was an infantry platoon captain. She transitioned to female after leaving the military in 2014 and continues to work with active-duty service members, who "have been incredibly respectful and accepting across the board."
"I think that the members of our military honestly don't care if someone is trans or not, or LGBT or not, as much as they don't care if someone is Jewish or Christian or Muslim or black or white or any other ethnicity," she said. "What they care about is if people do their jobs. Can you put rounds on targets and increase the lethality of our military, or not? And it's been proven that trans people can do that, so I'm very confused about the rationale that President Trump is using to exclude us from open service."
Paula Neira, a 54-year-old nurse and attorney from Bowie, Md., says she enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1981 but left after serving in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 "because I realized that I needed to transition [to female] and live authentically, and that meant sacrificing my naval career."
Neira, who went on to become one of the experts consulted by the military as part of its 2016 decision to allow open service for transgender Americans, said the Trump administration's claims of expensive medical care and disruption were "not supported by the evidence" gathered by military experts.
"Is our Department of Defense going to run around and try to discharge thousands of troops?" Neira said. "We don't know. What is going to be the actual impact? How do you implement this opinion?"
She said that forcing service members to "live a lie" about their identities was contrary to the military's values of honor and integrity.
"We have had folks deploy to combat over the last 16 years, we've had our allies deploy transgender forces right along ours, and they've been able to accomplish the mission," she said. "These folks have served honorably, and all they want to do is serve their country."
Calpernia Addams, 46, an activist and actress in Los Angeles, said she served in the U.S. Navy from 1990 through 1993, working as a field combat medic in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. She had enlisted to escape poverty, and she liked being a medic because she felt it was more feminine work. But she was always afraid of being kicked out for being different.
"Back then, the language wasn't even around to talk about trans issues," said Addams, who transitioned to female after leaving the Navy and who said she felt like she had missed out by not being covered by the 2016 policy change. "Seeing that other people had it, it felt like I was watching progress, and I knew somebody else didn't have to be afraid like I always was. Now that's been ripped away. It's really disorienting and disheartening, I'm still processing it."
Addams said it surprises people when she talks about the military being "the best possible thing" she could have done with her life at the time. "It opened up the world to me, it taught me self-confidence, it taught me how to be strong," she said. "I'm so glad I was in the military. I just hate that so much of my time had to be so fearful."