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As Trump’s ban plays out in court, America’s first openly transgender recruits are joining the military

Sammy Downs woke up in her car at 3 a.m. as Logan, her husband, slept in the rented Penske truck parked beside her. They had crashed there for the night, at this empty gas station somewhere in Texas, as the polling numbers rolled in and it became official: Donald Trump would be the next president.

They had been driving for days from Florida, where they had met and gotten married before starting a cross-country move that would land them in the Pacific Northwest — a place, they hoped, where Logan could live safely as a trans man as he prepared to join the military. Now, as Sammy checked the news on her phone in the dark, the future felt less certain.

The Pentagon confirmed this week that the first two openly trans people to join the military have signed contracts, a landmark event in the long battle over trans military service. After four injunctions from federal judges last year effectively allowed trans people to begin enlisting, a handful began the process, including Downs, 23, who plans to join the Air Force. But as this group moves forward, they’re doing so without the support of their commander-in-chief or solid assurance that they will be able to stay.

In mid-2016, President Barack Obama’s administration announced that trans people would be able to serve openly in the military. It was a banner moment for the trans community, thousands of whom are estimated to already be serving and for whom the declaration held life-changing promise. But in the last year and a half, as Trump’s administration has moved to undo that policy, and a legal clash followed, trans people in the military and those hoping to join have anxiously waited in limbo.

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For those who are currently serving and fear discharge, it feels like their life’s work is at stake. Some have served in the military for years and are nearing retirement. Others came out to their commanders after hearing that they would be allowed to serve openly, and when Trump’s White House began rolling back that policy, they felt trapped, like they had been tricked into revealing something that could now be grounds for separation.

So far, about 15 to 20 trans people have started the enlistment process. For them and others who want to join, there are a different set of questions. And for Downs, enlisting marks another kind of first: the second time he’s joined the military, but the first time he’s enlisted as a man.

Logan Downs, left, and Sammy Downs, right, live in Tualatin, Oregon, with their dog Bean. Photo by Corinne Segal

As a child growing up in Oviedo, Florida, about a 25-minute drive from Orlando, the military had always been a presence in Downs’ life. His older sister enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy in 2006 when he was 12, and recruiters visited his school.

At Hagerty High School, he eagerly joined JROTC, a leadership program whose curriculum taught students military procedures like drills and ceremonies. “I was leading people, I was making decisions,” he said. “It was really exciting and I really took to the discipline and everything like that, even on such a small scale.”

Others had always described Downs as a “tomboy,” and growing up, he had dreaded going through puberty. In high school, he came out as a lesbian, began dating girls and joined the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, eventually becoming president. But things still felt off. He thought he would always be insecure with his body. “At the time, I really didn’t know that I was trans. I didn’t have the language. I didn’t understand,” he said.

So when he graduated, he enlisted in the Army as a woman.

A trans flag and LGBTQ pride flag are displayed in Logan and Sammy Downs’ home in Tualatin, Oregon. Photo by Corinne Segal

Thousands of trans people are estimated to already be serving in the military, though estimates vary vastly. The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that conducts research for the military, estimates that there are between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender people in active duty, while the Williams Institute, a research institute based at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law that studies LGBTQ issues, estimated in 2014 that there are 15,500. A study published by the LGBTQ Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2013 said about 20 percent of trans people serve or have served in the military — double the percentage of the general population.

With little research available, no one knows exactly why trans people would serve at such a high rate. But researchers say in a country where trans people face high rates of poverty, unemployment, violence and abuse in the civilian workforce, the military could represent an attractive source of stability.

On July 2, 2013, Logan Downs left for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. (Sammy, his wife, likes to joke that he remembers her birthday because it’s the day he first left for training.) He was nervous — but when he got there, his previous training at JROTC kicked in. He knew how to march and follow orders, and he was a fast learner. He loved it.

Then, his second week there, his knees started to hurt.

It seemed like tendinitis, and as the days stretched on, it wasn’t getting better. To him, an 18-year-old who was ready to hurtle himself into military life with no backup plan, it was the worst possible thing that could have happened. As he sat out training, talking with doctors and falling further and further behind, he faced a choice: stay and go through physical therapy, which could take months, or go home. “I was just like, ‘I have to go home. I’ve been defeated,’” he said. “My spirit was broken.”

Inspired by the “I’ll Walk With You” campaign, which encouraged people to accompany trans people to bathrooms in a show of solidarity, Sammy and Logan stitched the message on their backpacks. Photo by Corinne Segal

He went back to delivering food for Marco’s Pizza in Oviedo. “I hadn’t planned for literally anything. I had planned on being in the Army for the rest of my life, and leaving Florida and never looking back,” he said.

In the fall, as pizza orders slowed down, Downs took another job working at Universal.

At the time, Sammy was working at Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, a show that “smelled like beer, turkey legs and vomit. That was my life,” she said. The show had a high turnover rate, and so in late October, three weeks before the end of the season, Downs started filling in there during Halloween Horror Nights, an after-hours seasonal event.

After they met in passing, Sammy wanted to hang out with Downs more, so she invited everyone working at her show, and then everyone working at the neighboring show, to head to IHOP after work. She told him that story later, “and he was like, ‘Why couldn’t you just talk to me?’” she said, laughing.

Photo by Corinne Segal

They began dating and spending nearly every day with each other, and a few months later, they moved in together. Meanwhile, on Tumblr, Downs had befriended Landon Wilson, a trans man who was kicked out of the military after he was outed as trans, and began reading more about trans issues. Things clicked for him, and as he read about the process of transition, he realized: I have to do this.

It was unclear what coming out as a man and transitioning to male would mean for his future in the military, but coming out to Sammy was the hardest thing to face. One day in March 2014, he sat her down and said, “We need to talk.” She listened, terrified, convinced by the buildup that he was breaking up with her. After he finally said it, her response was, “That’s it?”

She told him, “I love you for you, not your gender.” And at the end of the year, Downs proposed.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Department of Defense was shifting decades of military policy. For most of U.S. military history, trans people were not explicitly banned because there was little understanding of what it meant to be trans. In 1983, an Army regulation listed “transsexualism and other gender identity disorders” as a disqualifying factor for military service.

From that point until 2014, openly trans people were excluded from joining the military unless they received a medical waiver, and they could be fired from the armed forces. But in August 2014, that changed when new regulations from the Department of Defense under then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter established that being transgender would no longer be grounds for separation.

A rainbow flag flies as people protest U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement that he plans to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals from serving in any capacity in the U.S. military, in Times Square, in New York City, New York, U.S., July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX3D279

A rainbow flag flies as people protest U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that he plans to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals from serving in any capacity in the U.S. military, in Times Square, in New York City, New York, U.S., July 26, 2017. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

About a year later, in July 2015, a memo from Carter established that no one currently serving in the military could be separated or denied reenlistment based on their gender identity without special approval. Carter also created a working group of senior military officials to study the issue, which commissioned a study on any possible effects of trans military service.

That study concluded that allowing trans people to openly serve would have little to no effect on military readiness and “unit cohesion.” It also found that the military costs related to gender transition — which would later be cited by Trump as a burden to the armed forces — would total between $2.4 million and $8.4 million, or .04 to .13 percent of the military budget.

Some trans people, though not all, use hormone-replacement therapy or various types of surgery to transition. Downs started taking testosterone in August 2014, and about a year later received top surgery, a procedure usually sought out by trans men who want their chest to appear more contoured. Members of his church in Florida held a cabaret benefit, raising $1,500 to help him with the cost.

On June 30, 2016, Carter announced that trans people would be allowed to openly serve in the military and could enlist starting July 2017. The military would receive force-wide training on trans issues, and people on active duty would eventually be able to transition without leaving the military. “It kind of just really hit home that I have a possibility of actually rejoining the military and doing what I want to do,” Downs said.

That fall, Sammy and Logan got married at a community center in Longwood, Florida, where Sammy’s high school theater banquets had been held. They rented the space for $20 an hour, served pizza from Downs’ old workplace and hung up Halloween decorations to commemorate how they met right before Halloween. Shortly after, they made the journey from Florida to the Portland area, with Logan in the truck with their things and Sammy in their car with their dog Bean, communicating over Walkie-Talkies as they drove.

Sammy Downs stands in her and Logan Downs’ apartment in Tualatin, Oregon. Photo by Corinne Segal

They settled into life in Vancouver, Washington, just over the river from downtown Portland, and Downs worked as an Uber driver while working out and collecting his paperwork for the military. Several months later, at the end of June 2017, just before the Obama-era regulation was set to take effect, Mattis announced that the military would delay accepting trans recruits until Jan. 1, 2018 — and Downs, unfazed, contacted a recruiter to begin the process.

Then on July 26, Trump declared in a series of tweets that trans people would be barred from serving in the military “in any capacity.”

It was a move that blindsided Pentagon officials. Gen. Joseph Dunford — the highest-ranking military general — expressed surprise in an email to other top generals, according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed. (In his tweets, Trump had said he made the decision after “consultation with my Generals and military experts.”)

A month later, the White House laid out its new policy in an official memo. The memo said that the previous administration had not sufficiently studied the issue of trans military service and that the military would revert to its previous policy. “There remain meaningful concerns that further study is needed to ensure that continued implementation of last year’s policy change would not have those negative effects,” the memo read.

In short order, advocacy groups and trans troops filed several lawsuits, and between October and December, federal judges in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Washington and California issued injunctions that halted Trump’s policy from taking effect, saying that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their suits. Because of this, trans people were able to enlist in the military as of Jan. 1, 2018. But since those lawsuits are ongoing, many advocates and trans members of the military are worried about what happens if federal judges reach a different decision.

Sammy Downs, left, and Logan Downs, right, walk with their dog Bean through Macleay Park in Portland, Oregon, on Jan. 31, 2018. Photo by Corinne Segal

While enlisting in the military is a lengthy process for anyone, for trans people, it’s uniquely challenging. Any trans person hoping to enlist needs to first be “stable” in their gender for a period of 18 months before joining, according to existing regulations. But “stable” is not clearly defined, and 18 months is far longer than it takes most trans people to adjust after hormone therapy or surgery, said Dr. Hansel Arroyo of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital.

That 18-month waiting period also applies to other types of medical treatments or surgeries. But proving stability can be challenging for young trans people for whom there is no standardized system of treatment and who are not consistently covered by insurance in the U.S. At the beginning of the year, “we weren’t quite sure what medical records they were going to want,” said Navy Lt. Cdr. Blake Dremann, president of SPARTA, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ people in the military. Some recruits have been surprised at the depth of information that is needed from medical providers who they may have seen only once, or not in years, Dremann said.

Jackson Leverette, 29, a trans man who is also in the process of enlisting, submitted a letter from his doctor saying that he was “stable” and also chose to visit a therapist who could provide another stability letter. He said he was lucky that his doctors were responsive, but it can be a lengthy process, “especially if you’ve been transitioning for a long time,” he said. “Some [doctors] you haven’t seen in a very long time but you have to track down.”

As Downs gathered paperwork — which involved tracking down a therapist he had seen once in 2014, whose office had since changed, and getting a letter from his doctor to state that he was stable — he and Sammy settled into life in the Portland area. The two covered their walls with art from friends, Halloween decorations, inspirational sayings and photos from their wedding. They got jobs at Whole Foods and began working for Instacart, delivering groceries to suburban homes.

Logan and Sammy Downs look for groceries at Whole Foods Market 365 in Lake Oswego, Oregon, during a shift for Instacart. Photo by Corinne Segal

Between their jobs, they stay financially afloat. But the added security that would come with the military is important to them. “I think that’s why I wanted to be in the military in the first place, the stability. Not only would I not have to worry about paying for college, but like, I actually would have extra money,” he said. “It’s so nice for us to be thinking about paying off our debts.”

After his paperwork is complete, Downs’ next step will be at a Military Entrance Processing Station, where he’ll complete enlistment. Then comes basic training and tech school, which could last from a few weeks to several months.

One day years ago, as Sammy drove to her job at Universal, Katy Perry’s song “Fingerprints” came on the car radio. And she sang: “$7.75 isn’t worth an hour of my hard working time, when you can’t afford half the sh*t they advertise.” She had never related to a song more.

Now, as they wait, Downs and Sammy talk about a different kind of future. One with a second dog and a move to California or Alaska, where Sammy has always wanted to live. And, further off, a retirement to a tiny house on a large plot of land, surrounded by animals. It seems possible.