Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik commissioned as an infantry officer from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., graduated from Ranger School and lived a “soldier’s life,” she said, spending long periods in the field before becoming a physical therapist in the service.
After the Obama administration rescinded a ban in 2016 on serving while transgender, she wanted to do something else as a soldier, too: transition from male to female.
The decision did not affect her ability to do her job, she told the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel on Wednesday. Stehlik recently returned from a deployment to eastern Afghanistan, where she had replaced a pregnant soldier in her unit. She acknowledged having concerns that soldiers in her unit would be comfortable with her treating them but said she found that they actually opened up to her after she transitioned.
“They talked to me and told me things they never would have before,” Stehlik said. “Things they said they’ve never told other people. I asked them why, and the consistent answer is that they valued my authenticity — my courage in being myself. It allowed them to do the same thing.”
Stehlik was one of five U.S. service members who testified before the subcommittee, becoming the first transgender members of the military to openly talk about their experiences before Congress. They appeared in civilian clothing in their own capacity, describing their experiences at a time when the Trump administration is fighting in federal court to put in place a new policy that will limit many transgender people from serving in their preferred sex.
The other service members testifying were Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, a supply officer; Army Capt. Jennifer Peace, an intelligence officer; Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King, an infantry soldier; and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Akira Wyatt, a hospital corpsman who is assigned to treat Marine infantrymen.
All five service members have deployed and are eligible to do so now, they said. They all indicated they believe transgender service members should be required to do their jobs to stay in the military.
After seeking medical procedures as part of their transition, they were unable to deploy for periods that ranged from a week to a few months but found doing so was possible by taking personal leave around their unit’s training and deployment schedules, they said.
King said that in her case, she and her commander determined that the best time for her to undergo a vocal feminization surgery was through leave around Christmas.
“By doing this, I shortened the time that I was going to be down because I couldn’t speak over Christmas leave,” she said. “I just used a whiteboard to talk to my kids, and then at the end of January I was ready to go to the field with my unit.”
The hearing was called by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who became chairwoman of the subcommittee after Democrats took over the House in the midterm elections. She said at the outset of the hearing that the witnesses were “exceptional, but also exceptionally normal,” and condemned the administration’s policy change that is now contested in court.
“Congress cannot let the administration’s discriminatory impulses win out,” Speier said.
The ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Trent Kelly (Miss.), complimented the service records of the witnesses but also appeared to favor the administration’s new policy, which differs from a policy adopted by the Obama administration by barring those who seek to transition gender.
“It is an unfortunate reality that not every person who desires to serve in the military meets the stringent medical and behavioral health standards needed to maintain a ready and resilient force,” Kelly said. “However, it only makes sense that any individual who can meet these standards and is otherwise qualified should be allowed to serve.”
In a separate panel, James N. Stewart, a retired Air Force general who is now performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told the subcommittee that the new policy does not amount to a ban.
Transgender service members who are now serving will be allowed to continue, he said, and new ones can join the as long as they are not diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition under which people experience distress as a result of the gender they were assigned at birth.
“The realities associated with the condition called gender dysphoria and the accommodations required for that gender transition in the military are far more complicated than we may assume,” Stewart said.
Speier took issue with Stewart’s statement.
“That’s a policy that belongs in the Dark Ages,” she said, “not in the military of the 21st century.”