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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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Today, Ortega finds himself in desk-duty purgatory, with no indication of when he can resume leading helicopter crews. His chain of command has now asked the U.S. Army point-blank what to do with him, placing subtle pressure on the trans military ban that has slowly been crumbling since the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring open service by lesbian, gay, or bisexual soldiers.

In return, the Army has offered mostly silence. “Essentially what the Army is saying is, ‘OK, Sgt. Ortega, we’re basically going to put you on the back burner for a while until we decide some sort of answer,” Ortega says. It’s now been over half a year.

Despite the military's foot-dragging, an answer to the question of whether transgender people are fit to serve has already been provided — not only by the 18 countries that currently allow trans citizens to serve openly, but by several prominent studies. These reports have determined that there is “no compelling medical reason” to continue to deny open military service to transgender Americans, as a March 2014 study backed by a former U.S. surgeon general and performed by the Palm Center concluded. Also, a nine-member commission, including several retired generals and flag officers, concluded a three-month study last August with the recommendation that changing the current regulations to allow trans citizens to serve openly would be “neither excessively complex or burdensome.” 

The Palm Center, which conducted two of those long-term studies, had a definitive answer to the question Defense Secretary Carter posed in February when he expressed his "open-minded" position on reviewing the longstanding ban. "In response to a question today about whether transgender troops can serve in austere environments, Secretary Carter asked, ‘are they going to be excellent service members?'" the independent San Francisco-based think tank wrote in February. "The answer to this question, based on the experiences of 15,500 transgender troops who are already serving, as well as academic research, is an unqualified yes." 

Meanwhile, Ortega remains optimistic that his downtime might not be a total loss: He sees hope that the Army may be learning about transition-related medicine from his case in a way it hasn’t before. He explains that though the Army has specialists who understand endocrinology for transgender children, “there’s no one who specializes in … adult hormones,” making his lab reports “uncharted territory” that Army health care providers can begin gathering “baseline data” from.

And he remains confident that he’s ready to resume service as soon as he’s given the green light: He’s already passed his flight physical twice, and his chain of command awaits his return. He has even been cleared of ever having had gender dysphoria (distress over incongruity between one’s gender identity and the sex one was assigned at birth) by his brigade’s senior behavioral health officer. It's an unusual finding for a trans patient that may too prove to be a useful baseline.

“According to the military and my doctor, I’ve never had gender dysphoria,” Ortega explains. And he concurs with their findings. “I don’t have it. I’m comfortable with who I am," he asserts, though he says he understands the nuances of the loaded term. Raised by a lesbian mother who served in the military during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, Ortega says he was exposed to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the book that officially defines “gender dysphoria,” and at one time similarly defined homosexuality as a mental illness — from childhood.

While the term “gender dysphoric” is often bandied about colloquially as a synonym for “transgender,” Ortega — and, importantly, his military health care providers — appear to view the condition more as a temporary, or even avoidable, one.

“For me, I think gender dysphoria is kind of like before people come out as gay or lesbian,” he explains, his voice thoughtful. “That time period where you’re trying to figure out who you are. Once you acknowledge and actually know who you are, I don’t think you really suffer from dysphoria. I think you just need treatment at that time. It’s like saying, ‘I’m hungry.’ Until you get something to eat, you’re still hungry, you know? … You always know, ‘I’m hungry, I should eat a sandwich.’ So eventually, you’re like, ‘All right, cool, I got a sandwich.’”

The distress, Ortega adds, doesn’t emerge inherently from being trans but comes from the social rejection that can sometimes accompany the identity, potentially layering anguish on top of that temporary hunger for gender congruity.

Yet despite his own lack of dysphoria, as well as his seemingly charmed four years of reprieve that set the stage for his unparalleled outness, Ortega says he constantly cautions other trans soldiers to not expect the same outcome if they come out to their own chain of command.

“I’ve had hundreds of emails, to be honest, from active-duty service members as well as some reserve service members,” he shares. “I get people who say like, ‘How can I serve [openly as a trans person] like you?’ and I always have to explain to them, ‘There’s no protections or guarantees for you. You can take these steps forward, but you could be liable for separation.’ It’s really depressing.”

“Stories like Shane’s are more common than you think, and the pressure these service members feel is understandable,” says Allyson Robinson, herself a transgender Army veteran who currently serves as the director of policy for LGBT service member organization SPARTA. “The five transgender service members we took to the Pentagon last January to share their stories with senior leaders felt that pressure, as do the other transgender SPARTA members whose commands have chosen to retain them despite the regulations. But it’s infinitely preferable to the pressure thousands of other, less fortunate transgender service members feel: that of having to hide their true selves just to keep their jobs and keep serving.”

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That pressure and its attendant sadness get to him sometimes, Ortega admits. Particularly when he lobbies nationally for the end of the trans military ban and sees little support from lesbian, gay, or bisexual allies. He’s been quietly involved in such activism for years, but says it’s a side of him the public isn’t quite as interested to see right now.

Then he shakes off any traces of despondency. His voice brightens and he laughs. There’s simply too much that needs to be done to dwell, and he knows if he doesn’t make the most of his time on the national stage now, the chance may never come again.

“If the public doesn’t get to see this [trans] person actively serving, actively doing this job, and proving them all wrong, then they’ll never believe it can be done,” he says. “That’s why I keep doing this. I have a few more years left in my contract. I figure I can keep pushing.”

“To win open service for transgender Americans, we need to put faces to the fight,” Robinson concludes. “I’m profoundly grateful that service members like Jacob Eleazer, Rae Nelson, and Shane Ortega have stepped forward to serve in this way. It's making a difference in our work at the Pentagon and in the public square as well.’

So tomorrow morning, Sgt. Shane Ortega will inevitably rise. He'll shower, shave, and make sure no hair is out of place. He'll eat a measured amount of protein and later exercise with all his heart. He’ll head to the office, carefully observing the speed limit, and arrive right on time. And then he’ll walk to a desk and file other soldiers’ paperwork all day. At night he’ll dream of flying.

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