When the Pentagon announced last June that it was lifting its ban on transgender troops serving in the military, Navy Corpsman Akira Wyatt called it “the happiest day of my life.”
Her colleagues at Camp Pendleton in California had been part of her journey, asking “a lot of questions” along the way, Corpsman Wyatt said. “They wanted to understand, they wanted to learn who I was as a person, and who I wanted to be.”
The more she explained, the more supportive they became – in part, she says, because she could finally be herself. Her commanders, she said, wanted to make sure she stayed in the military because she was good at her job. And so last June they celebrated the lifting of the ban right alongside her, and she forged ahead with plans to make caring for hospitalized troops her career.
This week while on vacation, Wyatt woke up to the news that President Trump had tweeted his intention to reinstate the ban. “I was just kind of dazed,” she said. “My president Donald Trump had tweeted out these words that mean I could lose something that I love so much.”
Then the messages starting pouring in from coworkers and supervisors.“That morning a lot of them wrote and asked, ‘Are you OK? How’s everything going?’ And letting me know that they’re there to help if I need anything.”
It’s an experience that has been shared, in some form or another, by the estimated 1,320 to 6,630 transgender individuals currently serving among the 1.3 million members of the US military, according to a 2016 RAND study estimate.
Army Corp. Mac McEachin was driving through Georgia on a road trip from New Jersey to Texas when he got the news. “My fiancée, Amelia’s BBC News alert goes off, and she turned to me and asked, ‘Is Trump allowed to say that he’s banning transgender people in the military?’ ”
“I said, ‘I don’t know – that’s a good question. Why?’ ” And she said, ‘Well, that’s what just happened.”
'This is not enough to stop me'
Within a few minutes, Corporal McEachin, who is transgender, was also getting messages from fellow service members, offering their support.
Now that he has completed college and graduate school, McEachin is applying to go to officer candidate school in the Navy, the culmination of a decade of military service so far.
“This is the only job I ever wanted, full period stop,” he says. “This is not enough to stop me on a motivational level.”
Trump’s tweets have created confusion, however. “My first response is that this guy is kind of well-known for saying stuff off-the-cuff, and I’ve learned that you shouldn’t trust anything in the military until it has literally happened to you,” McEachin says.
At the same time, “I understand that we’re sort of a vanguard at this point, in this incredibly confusing and bureaucratic process. I’m willing to be the guinea pig.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford has said that the Pentagon is making “no modifications” to current policy regarding transgender service members “until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.”
“In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” he added. “As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”
Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who also led the training mission in Iraq, tweeted Thursday afternoon that “The service of men and women who volunteer and who meet our standards of service is a blessing not a burden #inclusionmakesusstronger.”
“We face national security challenges that require all the talent we have,” says Alexandra Chandler, who is transgender and has spent five years as a senior analyst with the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), helping to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
She recalls fighting “nearly paralyzing fear” in the hallways and “rushing” to get into her cubicle after she came out as transgender in 2006 so she could get on with a job she loved, even as some colleagues urged that she be fired.
Now she is grappling with how to help others resist feeling fear and hatred in the wake of the president’s tweets.
“The government’s advantage is that we have a mission focus – we have a job to do. The trans people serving in the military right now are doing the mission – they are not the distraction here,” adds Chandler, who emphasizes that she is speaking for herself, not for the ONI.
She is most concerned about setting an example for transgender children. “We want to send messages elevating the possibility of all Americans,” not limiting them, she says. “America has only thrived as our military has become more and more inclusive.”
'It meant being able to be myself'
It is an inclusivity that has come with some tricky technicalities, says one Army captain serving in Germany, who waited months after the ban was officially lifted last June to tell members of her unit that she was transgender.
That’s because she thought it would be helpful for the soldiers to receive the training on transgender military service that came in the wake of the lifting of the ban. “I didn’t want to throw anything on my unit that it wasn’t ready for,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she is not authorized to speak with the press.
It was an identity she had grappled with since childhood. “I grew up not ever hearing the word transgender, but I knew there was a struggle inside myself, and it made me extremely self-conscious about how I appeared to others.”
And so she did everything she could to fit the male mold, “to try to hide my true personality,” she said. “And what’s more manly than joining the military?”
When the Pentagon announced in 2015 that it was considering lifting the transgender ban, “It was just the greatest thing. For me, it meant being able to be myself. It took me a while to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this could really mean that my life gets to turn around.’ ”
The reaction when she finally came out as transgender to colleagues in April, “ranged from positive to indifferent,” she says. “It was, ‘You could do your job before, and I’m sure you can do your job now. That’s the opinion I found among a lot of soldiers: As long as you can do the job, it’s no big deal.’ ”
The military still considers the captain a male, “even though I see myself as female.” Current Pentagon policy requires that until the day the medical community says that the transition is complete, a service member must abide by the Army regulations applied to his or her gender at birth – haircuts, for example.
“And I still have to use male bathrooms, and a soldier will see me and say, ‘Good day, ma’am,’ as I’m walking in,” she says.
The statement released Thursday by General Dunford came as a relief “in a sense that I won’t get fired tomorrow,” she said. “But on the other hand, knowing that this is the stated desire of the president means that the policy could be being written right now.” Having served six years and fulfilled her ROTC commitment, the captain is planning to get out of the military and attend graduate school next year.
Though she knows she could easily find gainful employment elsewhere, Wyatt would like to make a career of serving in the military, if her commander-in-chief will let her.
“I will stay in and fight for what I believe in, fight for this kind of equality,” she says. “I’m going to stay in as long as I can. It’s not about me – it’s about what I can do for my country.”