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Why so many transgender Americans find refuge in military service

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Growing up, no one explicitly told me military service meant respect. They didn’t have to.

American flags flew in countless yards, including my own. The Pledge of Allegiance was recited each morning. Military recruiters knew my high school classmates by name and asked us about athletics and classes. Sporting events began with the national anthem. Military veterans had gainful employment. My evangelical upbringing stressed the importance of selfless service, of setting aside personal desires for the sake of a greater cause.

The only thing louder than the importance of service was the silence around LGBTQ identities. My public school teachers made herculean efforts to support their LGBTQ students, but for me — then, a teen girl struggling with gender identity and sexual orientation — there was no outweighing the influence of religion in my community. Deceived by Satan. Destined to have an unsuccessful life, unemployable, only lovable within certain parameters. There was no respect given, once I came out as queer — just the hollow repetition of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

I needed to be straight and gender-conforming, in order to be accepted.

In hindsight, it is no surprise that I gravitated to the military. I wanted out of my home town in Greenleaf, Wis. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to learn a trade, because skilled labor inevitably finds employment. I wanted something that would force me to be straight and gender-conforming. In some idealistic way, I was searching for respect.

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The Air Force and its core values of “integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do” promised me all of this and more.

I am a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. I am transgender. My story is not unique.

The U.S. military employs as many as 15,500 active duty, National Guard and National Reserve transgender troops, according to a Williams Institute study, which could make it the largest employer of transgender Americans. The research institute also estimated there are 134,000 transgender veterans. Transgender people face higher rates of homelessness, unemployment and health-care discrimination than the average civilian population, and military service can offer economic stability and a sense of purpose. By the Williams Institute estimate, transgender people are twice as likely to serve in the military as their cisgender peers.

Many enlisted troops have gainful, financially viable employment with only a high school diploma or GED. Housing and food are provided, as well as health care, job training and employment. Successful completion of an enlistment term means access to the GI Bill and Veterans Affairs health care. In the United States, military service often means social mobility. With social mobility comes respect.

President Trump’s tweets on Wednesday, announcing his plan to ban transgender people from the military, told me that he believes transgender people do not deserve respect. With three lines, he told me that as a transgender person, I do not deserve opportunities equal to those of my peers. Due to my body and my identity, he does not think I deserve equal treatment. He does not think I’m worthy of the respect that military service conveys.

I enlisted in 2009, fresh out of high school. I presented extremely feminine, but considered myself “one of the guys.” Little by little, however, hours of playing Call of Duty, replacing the floorboards in my battered Jeep Wrangler, and fishing with friends became fraught.

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The realization that my long blond hair and love of yoga pants was inherently at odds with being seen as masculine was difficult. Some men saw this dissonance as a personal challenge or an excuse to “make me a real woman” — consequently, we are no longer friends. 

But when I was at work fixing B-52 bombers, things were different. In the Aircraft Metals Technology shop, my accomplishments were acknowledged and my mistakes were corrected. I had people to turn to, and people who turned to me. As long as I did what was necessary to the best of my abilities, my worth was judged by my work and ability to be part of a team, not by my gender or my identity.

I transitioned a year after I was honorably discharged from the military.

Transgender people have served honorably for decades. And since Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s 2015 order that gender identity was no longer a cause for discharge, we have done so openly. It’s not clear what problem President Trump is attempting to solve. During his confirmation hearings, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis consistently expressed support for retaining the current policy and has also opposed efforts in Congress to reverse it. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who opposed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” is against banning transgender service members. In his office’s news release Wednesday, he stated, “Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving.”

Trump’s argument that transgender service members impose “tremendous medical costs” on the military makes no sense either. In a study requested by the Defense Department, the Rand Corp. concluded that medical care for transitioning service members would be less than a 0.2 percent increase in force-wide active-duty health costs.

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As a businessman, Trump should know the importance of having dedicated people on a team. The cost of including and retaining transgender troops is minuscule when compared to the benefits of allowing able-bodied and willing people to serve. Transgender inclusion in foreign militaries has had little to no impact on mission readiness or morale. The policy for U.S. troops has not shown itself to be any different. What does impact readiness, however, is losing skilled people who want to work. Telling transgender people that they are unwelcome, despite being twice as likely to serve as the rest of the population, is an inefficient business decision at best. At worst, it is disrespectful and dehumanizing.

I write this today from a dorm room, having just completed my first year of college. Without the military, I know my life would look very different. I cannot stand quietly by while a man who dodged the draft attempts to take options away from people who want to serve their country and improve their lives. The transgender troops I know are some of the best people I have had the pleasure of meeting. They live authentically and support their teammates, putting the mission and team integrity before themselves. They excel, they work hard, and they serve with honor. We deserve the same opportunities as our cisgender peers and the same respect. Denying transgender people the same opportunities as our cisgender peers is not only dehumanizing and disrespectful, it is fundamentally un-American.