When President Barack Obama repealed the United States military’s long held Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in 2011, it seemed like the dawning of a new day for LGBTQ members of the armed services. “Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it,” the former president’s Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, said at the time, in a statement that the National Center for Transgender Equality called “overdue but very welcome.” In the years directly thereafter, the progressive agenda rolled forward, a trajectory anticipated to continue with Hillary Clinton at the helm of the country.
Then came the election of Donald J. Trump. His rhetoric made clear that he not only wanted LGBTQ service people back in the closet, but to disappear from the ranks completely. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” he tweeted last July. Never mind that there are no statistics or figures that support that assertion, or that relieving the currently serving trans population within the U.S. armed forces, who are estimated at 15,000, poses its own threat to national interests. The facts were nonexistent. The agenda, however, was obvious.
Trump’s proposed trans ban has so far been impotent, with army generals declaring that they don’t take commands from Twitter. It has also led to a groundswell of support not just from Democrats but from Republicans, including Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, who backed a bipartisan bill to block a ban. “When less than one percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country,” McCain said in a statement at the time. “Any member of the military who meets the medical and readiness standards should be allowed to serve — including those who are transgender.”
That the proposed ban was criticized by both left and right is a sign of how far the military has come; how far the nation has come. Based on the results of this week’s midterms, Trump’s hateful rhetoric is facing a backlash. At least five transgender Americans were elected to office — one who ousted a transphobic legislator who was pushing a bathroom bill. We can only hope it is a sign of a more progressive, compassionate future. But for now, trans members of the military must grapple with an uncertain future. We spoke to four of them on the eve of Veteran’s Day, about their time in the service and what a ban would mean to them now.
Persephone, age 46, combat veteran, served 1988-1995, in the first Iraq conflict
"I grew up in Hawaii. When I got older, my mom moved from there to this really small town in South Carolina. I knew I couldn’t exist there. When I first learned about what it meant to be transgender, that knowledge came from books in my grandfather’s library — though at the time, the word was ‘transsexual.’ But I remember coming home from a birthday party when I was 5 and telling my mom that she had to start buying me dresses because I was a girl. The next week, I was in therapy with a child psychologist. I can understand her panic in a way, since trans kids were unheard of in the 1970s. But I also wish she would have listened to me.
"There was always this pressure for me to join the military, so I enlisted, in 1988. I Ieft in 1995. I served in the first Iraq war, andI was shot in the desert. You think you understand war from movies and television. But when you’re actually experiencing it, it’s nothing like that. It’s rough. I thought being in the military would help me ‘man up’ but it didn’t turn out that way. It took a long time for me to transition. For so long I just couldn’t go through with it. But when I was 42, I started dressing femme. Getting the courage to leave the house like that was one of the biggest challenges. But living my actual self, finally, was freeing. It was like: Everyone else be damned, you’re not going to rain on my parade, because I’m finally being me.
"When I first heard about the trans ban in the military, I immediately thought about the estimated 15,000 transgender people in the military who would be put out of work. Not because they are ineffective but purely for discriminatory reasons. But I also thought: People will fight this. Because we know that if we give them this win, they will just institute more prejudice against us. We can’t let them win."
Joey Whimple, age 25, enlisted in 2010, currently working for the Department of Veterans Affairs
“I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid, and that’s one reason I joined the military: I wanted to be part of a team. I was identifying as a woman, and stationed in Georgia, at a rural outpost on the border of Alabama. Sometimes I would go to these LGBT events in Atlanta, and that’s where I met other trans people. At the time I was dating a girl, and I asked her to refer to me as a boy. Something clicked. It took breaking away from home to realize who I really am. At the time, being transgender was still considered a mental disorder. I refrained from using gendered language for myself because it hurt me.
"I didn’t use openly male pronouns — I just always avoided the subject of gender. I would find an excuse not to wear my dress blues, which were female. I had short hair, so I was often mistaken for a male. When that happened I didn’t really correct anybody. I never felt as though saying that my feelings of being transgender was against the morals of the military, though. I just wanted to stay within regulation. I didn’t want anything negative drawn to my name. But the emotional trauma of not being able to transition was terrible. I felt like I was falling off a ledge every single day.
“I started taking hormones three days after I left the army; two weeks after that I had top surgery. Transitioning is draining in all senses, but I wouldn’t trade it for a thing. It’s like climbing a mountain: Getting to the top is so hard, with that haul on your back. But the view is incredible. I used to be timid about who I was and dissociate myself from veterans organizations because I would encounter so much transphobia. Then I got involved with Veterans in Global Leadership, which is a group of veterans focused on positive change. Everyone in my cohort has been so welcoming. It’s given me courage to be around other veterans and be proud of who I am.
“When Trump announced his intention to ban trans people from the military, I remember feeling so disappointed, and like it discredits what I’ve accomplished in the service. I love my job, but I had to pick between my dream career and feeling comfortable in my own skin. It three tweets it was like everything I’ve worked for was wiped away.”
Moishe Avi, age 27, commissioned in 2012, current Marine Corps Captain, EMT & volunteer firefighter
"My dad was an immigrant who came to the United States from Panama and then enlisted in the army. He did two tours in Vietnam. I always knew I wanted to serve in the military. I also knew early on I was transgender. My parents did the best they could, given the circumstances, and their knowledge about LGBT lifestyle. There was a lot of self hate. But there was always hope for me to find meaning in this world.
"I studied criminology in Florida after graduating from Valley Forge Military College. That was the first time I lived fully socialized as a male, and it was the happiest I’ve been in my life — especially because my dad had accepted the path I was on. In the end, he just wanted to see me happy. We talked about everything. I lost him a year later, to a sudden illness. He was my best friend.
"When I enlisted, I put myself back in the closet. I came out to people who were more LGBTQ friendly. But a lot of them had no clue what I was talking about. My best friend, who was my rack mate during officer candidate school, recently told me that she didn’t know what that meant at the time. Honestly, I think people so much at my heart when I do things, they don’t really see my gender or anything else.
"People go into the military understanding they are making a sacrifice, whether it’s to pay for school, to have a roof over their heads, for family tradition. They are volunteering to serve this country from a very small population of citizens. LGBTQ people have been there from the beginning, and they’re always going to be. People say that we’re wasting money by having trans people in the military. But we would lose valuable assets — people we've invested time, money and training in — if trans people were no longer allowed to serve. These are people truly want to be there. For many, this is their true calling. The question is: Are you willing to recognize our differences, and to capitalize on leveraging diversity and qualified people?"
"I think about the past a lot. I try to reflect on what it means to leave home at 18 years old, to build a new family in the military. You’re out there doing what you have to do, but there’s a struggle: Am I going to miss my daughter’s birthday? Am I going to watch her grow up? How can I be there? People have those conversations all the time. I’m proud and blown away by what people do to meet their commitments to their families and personal goals. They don’t think this about themselves. But I would say they are everyday heroes, just going above and beyond. They are inspiring. They motivate me, every day, to be a better Marine, and a better human being."
Valerie Lyn Brooks, age 40, combat veteran, active duty in the Navy service 1999 - 2003, participated in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom
"I knew I was transgender even when I was a kid: I just didn’t have the language. It took many years, and a lot of googling, to figure it out. I grew up in Coney Island, and I was pretty lonely when I was young. I spent some time in military school. I was homeless for a few months after my dad kicked me out of the house. That’s when I joined the navy, in 1999. People knew about me, and there were bullies. I just had to deny it. It was really hard to live a false life. This was during the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which I think hindered the military in so many ways, including operational readiness. We need people to staff the units they’re in, whether it’s medics or gunners or aviation specialists. The idea of a trans ban is ridiculous. Whether it’s for the money, for college, for health care: Anyone who is in the military just wants to serve. And if you have the talent, the know-how, the training, you should be able to do that.
"In a way, the military helped me and gave me the strength that I needed to deal with adversity, even though I really disagreed with the policies. I left the navy in 2003. After that, I got addicted to drugs, started doing graffiti. I was just really reckless with myself. In 2013, I hit a breaking point because my gender dysphoria had become unbearable. I felt suicidal. I checked into a Veteran’s Administration hospital and got some help from a psychiatrist. It was a huge turning point. I started taking my medication and going to therapy. I realized we make our own happiness. It’s up to us.
"For the last two years, I’ve been doing work with trans youth at the Ali Forney Center in Brooklyn, which is a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. The fact that these kids, at such a young age, already know who they are has been a learning experience for me. Times have changed a lot, but we have to keep pushing against the odds. Because we all know the odds are against us. The number one thing I tell these kids is: Don’t give up."
Want to learn more about these veterans and their stories? Tune into the video below for expanded interviews with Valerie, Persephone, and Joey, as well as Peche, who served in the Royal Thai Army.