On a day that many seemed ready to celebrate the Pentagon’s decision to allow transgender service members to serve openly, one prominent transgender soldier and LGBT advocate watched and waited.
“I’m not really celebrating as much as everyone else is,” Sgt. Shane Ortega — a 28-year-old helicopter crew chief in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii — said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. “What I’m really looking forward to is smooth integration and implementation. I’m looking forward to the increased cohesion and knowledge that U.S. military is going to develop.”
In April, Ortega — who served three combat tours, two as a woman and one as a man — was the subject of a Washington Post story by Juliet Eilperin about the purgatory transgender service members had been consigned to. Since 2011, gays have been allowed to serve in the military. But what about others with gender identifications that might not be recognizable to, say, Generals George Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower?
“You’re making these people run an infinite race,” Ortega said. “No one could do that forever.”
Just three months after he was profiled by The Post, however, Ortega found himself pulled on to a panel in a meeting at the Pentagon about how policies on transgender individuals in the military should change. This was a historic shift arguably more complex than the integration of the military in the 1940s. With an estimated 15,500 transgender personnel in uniform, there were a lot of questions to answer — and a lot that remain unanswered. Could a service member enlist as one gender, then change to another? How will transgender service members be housed? What about other accommodations, like bathroom facilities?
“There were some sort of guide questions they wanted to have my response on,” Ortega said. “I was basically told to speak extremely freely and without sugar-coating everything.”
Among Ortega’s recommendations, offered earlier this month: Work with personnel wherever they are in their transition, create an LGBT liaison, make education on these issues mandatory for service members and provide shower stalls. As he pointed out, transgender issues are well within the grasp of adults who are dedicating a part of their lives to their country.
“I think that if people are old enough to carry guns, they are old enough to understand that,” Ortega said.
But not every one is on board with the Pentagon’s change in policy regarding transgender service members. The conservative Family Research Council questioned the shift, the Associated Press reported.
“Considering the abysmal condition of our military and a decline in readiness, why is this a top priority for the Obama administration?” said retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, the council’s executive vice president. “The Pentagon must answer whether this proposed policy makes our military more capable of performing its mission. The answer is a very clear and resounding ‘no.’”
Though Ortega said he’s “a bit overwhelmed because now there’s still more to do,” presumably his juggling act — soldier by day, LGBT advocate whenever possible — will start getting easier.
“My main priority is be a United States service member,” he said. “I’m making sure it’s not ‘The Shane Show.'”
Down the road, Ortega said, he hopes debates like those about whether he should have to wear female “dress blues” will soon seem like military arcana. For the service members of the future, transgender and not, serving together will be normal.
“I don’t anticipate for new generations it will be rough,” Ortega said. He pointed out that military personnel are already held to a higher standard.
“You have to give them something to rise to the occasion for,” he said.