Sgt. Shane Ortega wakes up and shuts off his alarm clock at the same time every workday morning. The right time.
He showers, stops in front of the mirror, carefully scrapes away the faintest hint of stubble from his cheeks. He moves to his bedroom, donning his crisp office clothes just so. He’s out the door, right on time, headed to the Oahu military office where he’s been doing human resources work ever since he was grounded — temporarily, he intends — from flight last summer.
Sgt. Ortega is never late. He is never rumpled. He never has an “off” day. And he makes sure of it, because he's one of the first openly transgender people in the U.S. military, and he knows the world is scrutinizing him.
“Honestly, I have to be perfect right now,” the 28-year-old Army helicopter crew chief tells The Advocate over the phone from Wheeler Army Air Field. He follows his words with a light laugh that will be repeated many times over the next 40 minutes, one that seems to dissolve clouds of self-pity before they can gather. “Like, I couldn’t get a speeding ticket. I can’t be late. I can’t forget to shave one day of the week. I have to be absolutely perfect.”
And then, instead of resting, Ortega spends most of his lunch break talking about living a life that has become more than his own.
“I don’t think anyone really understands the level of perfection that I have to have right now that I stepped forward,” he admits. “But I understood the weight of the matter. It was part of what I juggled in my judgment before I decided to do that. And it’s really uncomfortable, to be honest. But if I don’t do it, it doesn’t help anyone else.”
He’s referring to people like the field grade officer who, he shares, privately sought him out after over a decade of service to tell him that they were transgender and had not felt able to come out. “It’s like, what can I do?” Ortega wonders aloud. “I can stick my neck out further.”
Last month Ortega stuck his neck out when he stepped into the national spotlight in a Washington Post article on the U.S. military’s continued policy against service by transgender people, becoming the institution’s most publicly visible active-duty trans soldier.
It was a decision he tells The Advocate he weighed carefully, though not necessarily because it would jeopardize his status with the military. Ortega had already more quietly let the U.S. Army know, through the American Civil Liberties Union in September, that he would not passively accept being “separated” — released from active duty — for being transgender, if his unexpected grounding ultimately led there.
Rather, Ortega deliberated on whether to go public because he knew it could have implications, large and small, for every other transgender person serving in the U.S. military. And while many can only imagine that his visibility will bring positive effects, behind the scenes the issues become much more complex and individual.
Then, those issues are compounded by the institutional military regulation that bars transgender people from serving openly: Department of Defense Instruction. It proclaims that any type of gender-confirming clinical, medical, or surgical treatment is evidence of “disqualifying physical and mental conditions.” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who took office in February, has said he is “open-minded” about reviewing the policy, 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 has confirmed that no specific review of the transgender-specific ban is currently under way.
“However, the Department of Defense began a routine, periodic review of the Department's medical accession policy, DoDI 6130.03 in February 2015,” a Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Nate Christiansen, tells The Advocate via email. “The review will cover 26 systems of the human body (e.g., neurologic, vision, learning, psychological and behavioral). We routinely review our policies to make sure they are accurate, up-to-date and reflect any necessary changes since the Department's last policy review. … The current periodic review is expected to take between 12-18 months; it is not a specific review of the Department’s transgender policy.”
Given the long history of the military's ban on open service by transgender Americans, one naturally wonders why Ortega’s status with the Army has been placed in limbo now, following a medical test showing “elevated” testosterone levels for a “female” soldier. Knowing that military health care providers could have performed that same test, and arrived at the same conclusion, any time over the past four years Ortega has been undergoing hormone therapy only allows one to begin to grasp the intricate balance of Ortega’s journey.
Metaphorically, Ortega represents every trans soldier who has ever served — a number totalling 15,500 currently on active duty, according to a recent estimate by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. But he is not every soldier. He is Sgt. Shane Ortega, a man whose exact path will never again be traced by another recruit. And he knows why, at least in part.