Serving Under Fear: The Trials of Being a Trans Soldier

· Updated on May 29, 2018

Riley Dosh was woken up last Wednesday by a call from the BBC. The British broadcaster wanted to know what Dosh, the first out transgender person to graduate from West Point, thought about President Trump’s decision to ban trans soldiers from serving openly in the military. This was the first time that Dosh heard about the tweetstorm, a seemingly off-the-cuff decision that has thrown the armed forces into chaos.

But unfortunately, she wasn’t surprised.

Dosh found out in May that she would not be allowed to join the military after graduation. The 22-year-old was suddenly called into her superintendent’s office for a 7 a.m. meeting with her entire chain of command huddled around her. They passed around copies of a one-page memo they received directly from the Pentagon. It stated that Dosh didn’t have proper medical clearance to serve—she claimed which wasn’t true. The chief medical person at West Point, Dosh told INTO, had already given her a “clean bill of health.”

One short meeting effectively dismantled every dream she’d been working toward the past four years of school. And to add insult to injury, the memo referred to Dosh—who came out as a trans woman in 2016—by male pronouns.

“They decided not to commission me for political reasons,” Dosh said. “It was depressing and heartbreaking. I returned to my room and just broke down. But just 30 minutes later, I had a lecture on military history, a lesson for a profession I was not about to enter. That was really tough.”

Since then, Dosh has held out hope that the Pentagon could “change its mind,” but the brewing battle over trans military service suggests her dream will remain deferred for now.

The tweet that changed everything

Thousands of transgender service members may get their own letter from the Pentagon after the Commander-in-Chief called for a sudden and widely unexpected ban on trans troops on Twitter. In a series of 9 a.m. posts, the POTUS claimed on June 26 that the government “would not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.”

He added that the Oval Office came to this decision following “consultation with my Generals and military experts.”

Despite this assertion, the announcement appeared to catch top officials off guard. James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, was on vacation when the president’s tweet was posted and allegedly had only been given 24 hours notice about the proposed policy. The Joint Chiefs of Staff hadn’t been notified at all, as CNN reported.

Although Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that the trans military ban was “the product of consultation,” she didn’t appear adequately briefed during a Wednesday press conference to answer questions about it.

Trans veterans told INTO that they are terrified that the president’s off-the-cuff edict will return them to a time when transgender people were forced to serve in secret, terrified of being outed. The ban on trans troops serving openly was finally lifted last year, following years of incremental steps forward. Prior to that decision, service members could be immediately discharged if their gender identity were revealed.

During her 12 years in the military, Laila Ireland lived with that fear every day.

An army combat medic, she signed up to serve in the armed forces back in 2003—and would come out to close family and friends as trans in 2012. Ireland waited another year to start opening up about her gender identity at work. To her surprise, her fellow service members were “very supportive and understanding,” especially younger service members. Ireland chalked it up to “a generational thing.”

She claimed the problem, however, was her superiors.

“I was always asked if I was wearing makeup, and if I had female garments under my uniform,” Ireland told INTO. “I didn’t present as female, but my patients automatically thought that I was a woman. Maybe it’s because I have feminine features or because of the way I carry myself. Leadership would hear that and they would come into the room while I had a patient and say, ‘You can’t do that. You have to tell them that you’re not a female.’”

Claiming that she “isn’t the type to quit,” Ireland endured this harassment for more than a year before leaving in 2015 due to unrelated medical issues. What made this ordeal difficult is that it was “hard to even talk about what was going on” with superiors. There were absolutely no protections for trans members of the military, so she could be terminated for just speaking up.

“Who could I even talk to?” Ireland continued. “I couldn’t say it was happening.”

The cost of living a double life

Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011, that groundbreaking decision—which allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly—didn’t apply to transgender people. Joanna Eyles, a transgender veteran served from 1999 until 2005, said that the prohibition of trans troops was a regulation through the Department of Defense. Labeled as a “medical condition,” Eyles claimed that being transgender was “classified in the same category as pedophilia and bestiality.”

“It was a medically disqualifying condition,” Eyles said. “It was painful to be told that these feelings I had since I was a child was a ‘disease’ and a ‘mental disorder’—comparable to some of the worst things that a person can do.”

Estimates of the number of trans people in the military vary widely. The Williams Institute, a pro-LGBTQ+ think tank at the University of California Los Angeles, has estimated that 15,500 transgender troops are actively serving in the U.S. armed forces. UCLA also found that a fifth of trans people had served in the military in some capacity—making them twice as likely as members of the general population to enlist.

Meanwhile, a 2016 survey conducted by the RAND Corporation, one commissioned by the Pentagon, came to a different conclusion. They found that there were between 1,320 and 6,630 trans service members actively serving.

These discrepancies are a product the difficulty of collecting data on a population that remains burdened with stigma and fear, even as the military takes important steps forward. Denny Meyer, the national public affairs officer for the Transgender Military Veterans Association, pointed to the 1999 murder of Barry Winchell. Winchell wasn’t trans, but his girlfriend was. He was bludgeoned to death by a fellow service member with a baseball bat while he was sleeping.

Meyer, a gay man who enlisted during Vietnam, said that LGBTQ troops live with these worst-case scenarios in the back of their minds. He compared the feeling to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“You expect discrimination,” Meyer said. “You watch yourself. Regular PTSD comes from being in Iraq for 18 months where you could get blown up at any moment. Gay PTSD is the same kind of stress, realizing that your fellow troops could kill you for being gay or that your command could find out that you’re gay and kick you out suddenly.”

“You would have to go home in disgrace, if you live through the process of being kicked out,” he added.

Lara Americo enlisted in the Air Force when she was just 17, before she had the language to describe the gender difference she felt inside. But as she came to the realization of her feminine identity, the 32-year-old learned she would have to hide it. Raised in a military family, Americo tried to “be as masculine as [she] could be.” She lifted weights and trained as an MMA fighter. If Americo couldn’t have long hair, she shaved it bald instead.

This double life, she said, took a massive toll on her mental health.

“The depression was getting harder and harder to deal with,” Americo said. “I had to appear so masculine in front of everyone else that it was starting to take over to the point where I didn’t think I would live to see my next enlistment. I knew I wasn’t going to survive. I was going to take my own life if I stayed.”

To cope with the anguish of living a lie, Eyles sunk increasingly deeper into alcoholism. (A 2008 survey found that this is extremely common among members of the military—with nearly half reporting binge drinking in the past month) Every base, except for those stationed in war zones, has a liquor store on campus where troops can buy cheap booze—often two or three dollars cheaper than the market price. Another perk is that service members aren’t taxed for liquor.

Whiskey helped her to numb her pain, but it wasn’t good for much else.

“I couldn’t come out, so I drank,” Eyles claimed. “I’d show up late to work and get disciplined. Having to serve in an environment like the military and stay closeted is a horrible experience. I really don’t see how I made it through.”

Being shoved back into the closet

For the transgender troops who had suffered in silence for decades, last year’s announcement that the ban on open military service would be fully lifted was a lifeline—and it’s one that’s resulted in little fallout for the Pentagon.

Trump claimed during his Wednesday tweetstorm that allowing trans people to serve openly would result in “tremendous medical costs and disruption” for the U.S. armed forces. But numerous reports have shown that the price tag is minimal. RAND found during its 2016 study that medical costs would increase no more than $6 million a year, which amounts to .13 percent of the yearly military budget.

As the Military Times pointed out, the Department of Defense spends five times that amount on Viagra each year.

Mara Keisling, executive director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, said that the until last week, the transition had “been going smoothly.” This process has included educating service members, including leadership, on transgender lives. Members of the military have begun to receive diversity training, where they learn to refer to trans troops by their preferred name and pronouns.

These workshops might also include primers on basic terminology, what words to use (e.g., “transgender”) and which to stay away from (e.g., “transvestite”).

Despite the president’s concerns that trans troops threaten unit cohesion, service members say being able to be accepted and affirmed for their true selves has brought them closer to their fellow soldiers.

Sage Fox, who claims to be the first transgender person to be allowed to serve openly in the military, knows what it’s like to have your job suddenly ripped away from you. A captain who had served in the U.S. Army Reserve more than a decade, she took time off in 2012 to transition. Fox didn’t think she would be able to return to her post and had planned for civilian life—going to grad school and starting her own business.

But after consulting their legal department, Fox said that her Sacramento base told her that it “doesn’t make a difference to us.”

That embrace, however, would be short-lived. Two weeks after shattering the military’s glass ceiling for trans service members, Fox received a set of official orders transferring her to individual ready reserves. She would be placed on inactive status, an administrative limbo Fox has remained in for four years. She claims that her battalion “refused to discuss” her removal, which she says was “against military policy and happened without explanation.”

“I was never given a reason,” Fox told INTO.

But Fox claimed that the support of her fellow service members never flagged—although they were initially shocked when she came back to work looking like a completely different person than the soldier they once knew. Her flaxen hair, which has since been dyed bright red to match her name, had grown long, revealing a naturally feminine wave.

“You were so masculine!” Fox remembers her coworkers saying. “I had no clue. But you know what? You were a great officer, and I’m happy to serve with you.”

Despite the president’s nebulous budgetary concerns, trans service members say that the real cost is the damage his proposed policy will do to those who believed that equality was finally coming. Although the military had initially set July 1 as the date that trans people would finally be allowed to enlist, Mattis announced in a June memo that the start date would be pushed back six months. The military, he said, needed more time to make incremental changes necessary to fully prepare for the transition.

Trump’s tweets would not only halt that plan indefinitely. It could set the military back decades, a reversal that trans troops cannot afford.

“This is not ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Kiesling said. “This is ‘You’re Fired.’ This is as many as 15,000 well-trained service members being told, “Go home. We don’t want your patriotism. We don’t want your service. We’re just throwing it out because the Commander-in-Chief can’t control himself on Twitter.”

Trans soldiers will keep fighting

Sources inside the White House claim that the president blocked transgender people from serving to fund his personal pipe dream of a border wall between the United States and Mexico. But Trump may find his effort easier said than done.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, who serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in a memo sent to military commanders last week that nothing has changed—at least for now. “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,” Dunford said.

As of Monday, the Pentagon has yet to receive a formal mandate from the Oval Office.

Advocacy groups have stated that they will fight any action put forward by the Trump administration to reverse the year-old policy allowing trans people to serve. Peter Renn, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, told INTO that the LGBTQ+ legal organization would challenge the president’s proposed ban as a violation of the 14th Amendment. (OutServe-SLDN, an organization representing LGBTQ+ military personnel and veterans, announced it will join any such suit.)

“The Equal Protection Clause prohibits the government from engaging in discrimination against minority groups without adequate justification,” Renn said. “There is no such justification here.”

But trans people have fought for decades for their right to serve openly, and the service members and veterans INTO spoke with claimed that they would keep fighting. Although Dosh had planned on being a math teacher if she wasn’t allowed to serve in the military, the past week has made her into an activist.

Dosh didn’t get to eat until 5 p.m. on Wednesday because she’d spent her entire day highlighting the potential harms of Trump’s tweets, giving interviews to anyone who would listen. When she finally got around to thinking about food, her breakfast was a bowl of Ramen noodles.

Although Dosh plans to update her name and gender marker before re-enlisting (to avoid being called “sir”), the 22-year-old hopes her day will eventually come.

Before graduating in May, Dosh’s commander collected her classmates and explained that she wouldn’t be joining her peers in the military. Some already knew her story, while others were hearing it for the first time. As they gathered in an indoor football field on the West Point campus, the support in the circle was palpable. Her commander said that Dosh’s community would “still support” her, no matter what happened.

“One of the things they give us at graduation is commemorative second lieutenant bars,” Dosh said. “They hand them to you right after you receive your diploma. My commander was standing off stage congratulating all the people he was in charge of. I passed by him and he told me to hold onto these things—I still might use them.”

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