As my fiancé, Logan, and I walked up the steps into the White House last week, we did what any other overly excited person attending the White House Pride Reception would do: We took a selfie.
We were quickly greeted and flagged down by White House media officials, who asked us to say a few words on our thoughts about marriage equality and what it was like to be at the White House for this momentous occasion. After answering a few questions, we were ushered to the breezeway, where pictures of our past and present presidents line the walls.
From John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, the pictures represented the long legacy of our American leaders. As Logan and I slowly passed each mounted photo, I squeezed his hand for his attention.
"We are in the White House," I whispered. Logan smiled, dapper in his Air Force dress blues, and leaned in to steal a kiss. It was so surreal. The red carpets, the singing group located in the foyer, the distinguished guests all around. It was the White House.
I couldn't believe that I, Laila Villanueva, a transgender woman and Army corporal from a small town in Hawaii, had been invited to the White House — as my truly authentic self, hand in hand with my fiancé, Logan Ireland, a U.S. airman.
Other people like me have only dreamt of having this opportunity — yet there we were, standing in the middle of it all. As we walked further into the breezeway, four gentlemen in crisply pressed military uniforms stood awaiting the guests' arrival. Servers carrying trays loaded with champagne glasses quickly moved forward, offering a glass to each guest as we entered the main area.
We made our way to a staircase that would take us up to the main hall, where we joined other guests entertained by a Marine Corps band, enjoying hors d'oevures and an open bar, and finding even bigger rooms. It was festive. Everyone looked so sharp, the men in their suits and the women in elegantly flowing dresses.
Logan and I were quickly pulled into a red room with other handpicked guests who would be meeting the president, shaking his hand for an unforgettable photo op. Logan and I briefed the White House officials on proper name pronunciations, while they presented us with the precise details of what would happen next, including that the president had already been given short bios explaining who we were.
As White House handlers lined us up, I gripped Logan’s hand tightly. A sweeping feeling of accomplishment overcame me. In a moment, everything I have done in my life to get me to where I stood came rushing back to me. I was about to step into a room where the president stood waiting to shake my hand. Logan slowly let my hand go and moved forward as I followed.
President Obama is a very tall and humble man. All my nerves vanished as he took my hand, directing me to stand right next to him. As an actively serving transgender soldier in the United States Army, I never imagined that my stepping forward to highlight the need for long-overdue changes to the military regulations barring transgender Americans like me from serving openly would bring me to stand beside the president. The realization that my fiancé, a transgender airman who is currently able to serve as his authentic self with the support of his command, would stand beside me in this moment was almost overwhelming.
Awe-struck, we were hastily directed to move into the next room. As I stepped forward, I turned to shake the president’s hand once more. "Thank you both for your outstanding service,” he said.
For the first time ever, I actually felt appreciated. Not just for my service, but for being true to myself.
As I entered the next room, I stood for a second and let it all sink in. I just met, shook hands, and took pictures with the president. It was, without a doubt, a moment I will never forget.
These are the moments that make this journey for trans equality in the military truly worthwhile. As we rejoined the other guests, Logan and I could not help but smile at the momentous opportunity we were given. It's a story that we will one day share with our grandchildren.
As members of SPARTA, a support and advocacy organization for LGBT and allied service members, veterans, and their families, Villanueva and her fiancé, Senior U.S. Airman Logan Ireland, are among a growing group of military advocates calling on Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and the Pentagon to update the outdated medical policy that declares transgender Americans categorically unfit to serve.