Slowly but surely, stories of transgender people serving openly in the U.S. military are emerging, each heralding a new step of progress in overturning the institutuion's ban on open trans military service.
This week, Buzzfeed introduced the world to a trans woman serving openly while an active-duty Army officer, Jamie Lee Henry, who has the distinction of being the first known servicemember to change her name and gender within the U.S. armed forces.
A 32-year-old trans woman who serves as a doctor and major in the Army Medical Corps, Henry shared with the news site how she's been able to remain serving, in part: with the clear support of her commanding officers. When she came out as trans three years ago and faced familial upheaval — which eventually included divorce and a brief stint of homelessness — Henry said her then-commander helped keep her career on track and even temporarily housed her.
When last fall she began to take steps to medically transition, Henry said her new commander backed her too. "My commander said, 'I don't care who you love, I don't care how you identify, I want you to be healthy and I want you to be able to do your job," she recalled to Buzzfeed. Henry said she expected to be considered a "freak" and to be discharged under Department of Defense Instruction 6130.03, a regulation which dictates that any type of gender-confirming clinical, medical, or surgical treatment is evidence of "disqualifying physical and mental conditions." Though following the instruction is not required, its common usage has kept an estimated 15,5000 transgender troops serving in silence about their gender identities.
Last last year, the Army ruled that the decision of whether to separate trans troops under this regulation would be taken out of the hands of commanding officers and elevated to the assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. Even so, chains of command appear to play a key role in the stories of each of the handful of trans servicemembers that have been able to serve openly, as shown by the stories of Jacob Eleazar, who served in the Army as TAC (Teach, Assess, Council) officer, and illustrated by The Advocate's exclusive interview with Army Sgt. Shane Ortega last month.
A helicopter crew chief based in Oahu, Hawaii, Ortega gained national recognition in April after filing a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union and going public with his story of serving while out as trans to his commanders for over four years. Grounded last summer after the U.S. Aeromedical Board determined his testosterone levels were "elevated" for a "female" soldier, Ortega's situation led to his commanders asking for federal guidance on whether they could allow Ortega to continue to serve as the man that he is. Ortega has not yet received word on if and when he will be able to resume flying.
Henry, like Ortega, told Buzzfeed she feared being "separated" — released from active duty — when she came out as trans to her commanders, but it was a risk she felt compelled to take. Moreover, she added, her "story is not unique." Both she and Ortega have received numerous private messages from closeted trans servicemembers wondering if it's safe to come out while serving.
The answer to that question is complicated, but there's increasing hope that the conclusion will soon be an unqualified "yes." Henry said she would not have come out had recent gains not changed the landscape for trans troops.
And the landscape is still changing. In an unexpected decision Thursday, the U.S. Air Force became the first branch of the nation's military to announce that their trans servicemembers will no longer face the risk "separation" — release from active duty — simply for openly identifying as transgender or recieving a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
Further, the American Medical Association officially declared Monday that there is "no medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals from service in the U.S. military," corroborating a series of large studies from San Francisco State University's Palm Center.
Additionally, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who took office in February, has said he is “open-minded” about reviewing DODI 6130.03, which has not been updated since it was written in the 1970s. But despite pressure from activists within the ranks and in Washington, the Pentagon did confirm last month to The Advocate that no specific review of the transgender-specific ban is currently under way.