Long says she fought depression for years. But at the age of 40 in 2005, she realized she identified as female.
The order President Trump issued last Friday supports a ban on many transgender troops, rolling back a policy adopted by the Obama administration.
Though the decision revokes a full ban that Trump issued last summer, it disqualifies U.S. troops who have had gender reassignment surgery, as recommended by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Legal challenges are expected.
Transgender individuals have been able to serve openly since 2011. The United States has about 15,000 transgender service members and 150,000 transgender veterans. About 18 nations allow transgender individuals to serve openly. The Netherlands was the first in 1972. Canada adopted the policy in 1992, and Israel in 1993.
We asked two transgender veterans to share their experiences. Their comments have been lightly edited for clarity.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Jennifer Marie Long, 53, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Long, who lives in Kearny, N.J., is commander of her local VFW Post and the VFW district commander for Hudson County.
Q: Where did you grow up, and what was it like for a transgender person back then?
A: I grew up in Jersey City, N.J., with Irish and Italian parents. Catholic school educated, this was a time of the mid-sixties, before Internet and the public discussion or awareness of transgender people.
I am often asked when did I know I was trans. I ask the question back, when did you first know you were a boy or girl?
How did you know that? I usually get the same response, well I have always known, then why would it be any different for me. However, I couldn’t understand why I felt the way I did.
Q: What led you to join the military?
Any expression of gender identity other than “male” was met with strong displeasure from my parents. So began the lifelong process of suppressing those feelings. Living a hypermasculine life, it was what drove me to join the military. This became a career. I sought out all the toughest jobs I could get.
So I joined the Army, went into the infantry, then became a drill instructor, and later paratrooper. Spent time in a long-range reconnaissance unit. I have deployed to Desert Storm, worked in the prison in Gitmo, chief of security in the third-largest base in Iraq, and my last tour was that of a combat adviser assigned to the French gendarmerie in northern Afghanistan. I received the Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star and the French National Defense Medal for my actions in Afghanistan. Achieving the highest enlisted rank, that of sergeant major. Then retiring in 2012.
Q: If you feel comfortable, tell us about your transition.
I began my medical transition after my tour in Iraq in 2009. I made the decision I can longer suppress who I always felt I was. With my best effort to suppress and change, I found myself facing the same question of gender identity as a young boy. Having served my country with distinction, it was now time to do what was best for me, and that was transitioning. This process began with hormone therapy and would take months before any significant changes would occur. This left me time to plan my retirement from the Army. However, before that chance to retire came, I was sent to Afghanistan. In the middle of my transition I found myself on yet another tour. This would be the toughest direct combat environment I would face. I continued my hormone therapy while in Afghanistan.
Q: How did your fellow troops react?
A: In my time on the small French base in the Hindu Kush mountain range, I was befriended by a small group of women who were part of an American Provincial Reconstruction Team. These eight women, mostly from the U.S. Air Force, became my closet friends and my support. I opened up to them about my transition and they gave me support and friendship that lasts to this day. When I returned back home and to a new unit assignment, what would be my last, it was much different. Several months into the assignment word had gotten out about my transition. This did not go well, curiosity and rumor spread throughout the battalion.
A call came in and the conversation was to encourage my immediate retirement. This was before open service and education took place in the military. Today, many of those same men are now close friends and support me in my decision to transition. I continue to serve my local veteran community.
Q: What do you think of the recent ban proposed by the Trump administration?
A: Each race, women, African Americans, lesbian, gay, and transgender have felt the need, heard the call to service. Today with an all-volunteer military, the requirement of inclusiveness is, if anything, greater, because force size and the mix of specialties will require service members and leaders who will be able to operate in any political, cultural or environmental climate around the world. We all have the right to defend freedom, to have equality. All who entered military service did so of their own free will, and raised their hand and [took] an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Retired Maj. Evan Young is now president of the Transgender American Veterans Association:
Q: Tell us about your experience of being transgender in the military?
A: One thing that I’d like to point out is that throughout history, transgender service members have laced up their boots just the same as any other service member. The truth is that we serve with honor and integrity right beside every other service member despite constant attacks from the bigotry spewed from the current administration. I am confident that the courts will rule in our favor, and the unconstitutionality of this transgender ban will be brought to light. Our service to our country is foremost. Our mission is to this great nation, which we will defend.
Q. Where did you grow up? What was it like coming out as transgender?
A: I grew up in Little Rock, Ark. Growing up, I was not aware that one could change their gender. I was merely a tomboy. I dressed in mainly boy’s clothing, played all sports and excelled in school.
I came out as transgender later in life. I was a closeted lesbian for many years before realizing that one could actually change their gender. My transition started when I was serving on active duty, and it was very difficult.
I remember in basic training my drill sergeant hovering over my platoon with her intimidating stare, saying, “I don’t care what gender you are. When you put this uniform on, you are a soldier.” I’m paraphrasing what was said. I believe it was a bit more graphic. Lol.
But it made an impression on me. Beyond all else, I’m a soldier, and I will conduct myself as such. Firing a weapon, pulling someone out of a fire fight, or patching someone up after they’ve been hit, one doesn’t stop and ask if the one helping is transgender. You’re just glad you have your battle buddy looking out for you.
I spent a year while at my duty station, NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] and USNORTHCOM [U.S. Northern Command] at Peterson Air Force Base, studying what it meant to be transgender. At the time, I was a closeted lesbian. This was 2010, not too far from the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Coming to the realization that a person could physically change their gender was a revolution and a relief. Thinking back to my childhood, I had always wanted to be a boy. That innate feeling of being trapped in a female body tugged at the back of my mind.
Q: What drew you to military service?
A: The military is a very masculine entity. I enjoy challenging myself physically, and the military gave me that opportunity. I also enjoy the discipline. However, I mainly joined because I am a patriot. I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself and to make a difference in whatever way I could.
Q: What did you do in the service?
A: When I enlisted, I served as a signal specialist. After promoting to sergeant some years later, I was selected for an ROTC scholarship and I commissioned as an Adjutant General Corps officer. I went on to specialize as a public affairs officer.
Q: What was the reaction to transgender troops among those you served with?
A: When I served and started to realize I was transgender, the transgender movement was just beginning. Don’t ask, don’t tell had just been repealed, and the reaction I saw towards LGBT persons was acceptance. Troops care if you have their back in battle, not about your sexual orientation or your gender identity.
Q: Can we say how life for transgender individuals has improved? Or rolled back and forth?
A: The LGBT presence in Arkansas has become more vocal and visible than the past. I believe now there are more role models for the younger generation. More and more people know of someone that is lesbian, gay or transgender. There are still barriers to overcome, mainly that being transgender is a choice or that it is some sort of mental issue. From those uneducated thoughts comes bigotry and discrimination.
Q: And what is your current take on Trump’s news?
A: We are all pawns in Trump’s reality show. He pits everyone against one other. It’s chaos. I believe that is exactly what Mr. Trump wants. … The transgender ban is not only a diversion to current affairs, but it is also feeding into the bigotry of his base in the hopes of them bailing him out when the time comes.
Q. What was your transition like?
A. It took some time for me to get in with a new physician, and then to be referred to an endocrinologist because I was miles away from a military post and had to use the civilian sector. I researched transgender-friendly endocrinologists and landed with a doctor that understood me. He prescribed hormone replacement therapy for the removal of my ovaries and testosterone for increasing my libido. I started taking the testosterone. It was a low dose, and I thought that the transition would be subtle and slow. However, I soon realized that the changes were happening a lot faster than I anticipated. So, there I was changing right in front of my command. My voice deepened. My facial structure became more masculine. I had short hair already, so with my cover [hat], I passed as male. I would be saluted in the courtyard and sir’d by cadets.
However, the cadre knew my gender was female. I became a recluse in my office. I had to go across campus just to use the restroom because if I used the female latrine, the cadets would cry foul, and if I used the male latrine, the cadre would raise red flags. The red flags were already starting to raise, though. My command opened an investigation. It was a race to get out with a medical retirement and full benefits or kicked out with no benefits for being transgender. Luckily, my hormone replacement and testosterone therapy were legitimate. I loved serving my country, hated that it was my time to get out, but very grateful to be able to finally live authentically.