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Poised for Perfection: Sgt. Shane Ortega Puts a Face to the Transgender Military Ban

Poised for Perfection: Sgt. Shane Ortega Puts a Face to the Transgender Military Ban

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The short version: In 2011, six years after Ortega initially entered the Marine Corps as a high school junior, he visited a civilian doctor to discuss the fact that he was transgender and was ready to begin his medical transition. He was seeking access to testosterone, which the American Medical Association considers “medically necessary” treatment for transgender men undergoing physical transition. Once he obtained the hormone prescription, he followed his duty as a soldier to report the civilian doctor’s findings with Army medical personnel and his chain of command. “By me making sure I reported [my new medication], I was protected in that regard,” he explains. “But under the military regulations about having gender dysphoria, I was absolutely not protected. I could have totally been separated — but I wasn’t.”

Why the lucky break? Ortega speculates that perhaps, “part of that too was just because I was such a high performer,” but there’s no way to ever know for sure. “It’s kind of subjective,” Ortega adds. “It depends on the chain of command.”

For the next four years, Ortega underwent testosterone therapy while serving in the Army, including a tour in Afghanistan, without a hitch. He never strove to hide his lowering voice or stubble, and never asked until right before the release of the April 9 Washington Post profile to be called “Shane” or “he.”

“But,” he reveals, “that was already happening in my command. People are going to begin realizing that you look really male. ‘That’s a dude,’ you know?” Hearteningly — especially for the potential future of out trans service members — Ortega says his gender identity never became an issue among peers or military leadership.

Never, that is, until Ortega's most recent flight physical reached Fort Rucker, Ala., home of the Aeromedical Board.

Fort Rucker officials are the ones who ultimately decide which troops do and do not fly in the U.S. Army, even if the soldier has already gone on a number of flights. The board’s decision did not accord with that of Ortega’s chain of command.

“When they finally reviewed my flight records, they were like, ‘This is a female with testosterone in their system,’” Ortega recalls. “On the flip side, in the civilian world, according to the [Federal Aviation Administration], transgender people are allowed to fly. So it’s hilarious,” he concludes, letting an unusual edge seep into his even voice. It subsides just as quickly. Perhaps there’s a part of him that knew he was working on borrowed time ever since he first held that testosterone prescription back in 2011.

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