Adam was supposed to come out as transgender to the military last week.
He had a doctor’s appointment set for late July — the culmination of years of therapy and efforts to suppress his identity alongside a military career where he flourished while wondering what would happen if anyone found out he was transgender. Now, he was ready to tell a doctor and begin his transition.
But at the last minute, he was tapped for an assignment and had to reschedule the appointment for several weeks later. Then on Wednesday, July 26, President Donald Trump tweeted that transgender service members would not be allowed to serve “in any capacity.”
“I felt a lot of despair … The timing of it, just the timing for my personal story couldn’t have been worse,” he told the NewsHour Weekend, adding that he wants to transition to female, but for now uses a male name and pronouns. (He asked us not to use his real name because he is still not out to the military.)
In a string of tweets, Trump contradicted a groundbreaking announcement by the Pentagon one year ago that transgender people could serve openly, causing confusion and alarm for the estimated thousands of active trans troops. While Pentagon leaders, who were blindsided by the announcement, tried to assure transgender service members that nothing has changed, they are living in a grim limbo that has some questioning whether they should remain closeted.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said on Thursday that, “There will be no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.”
He added, “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.” But Adam and other transgender soldiers told the NewsHour Weekend that the damage to their morale had already been done.
Many say that they feel that the military will inevitably enforce Trump’s announcement, even as some leaders in the community urged them to remain calm and keep doing their work. Others have changed their plans to transition or come out, some after years of anticipation, even though military policy still technically allows them to do so.
Lt. Taylor Miller of the U.S. Coast Guard, a transgender woman who began her transition two and a half years ago, said Dunford’s statement “doesn’t provide much comfort.”
She added, “I know right now, sure, nothing has been legally or officially stated, but the chance of it happening has not gone away at all, and that’s what makes it hard. The fear of the unknown.”
Adam was more than a decade into his military career when then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced the new policy on transgender soldiers last June.
Carter said that transgender soldiers could serve openly and laid out a process for those already enlisted to medically transition. The new guidelines also established a one-year deadline for force-wide training on transgender issues and for the military to establish a process for recruiting trans people, who already serve in the military at roughly double the rate of the general population. UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that about 15,000 troops are transgender.
Adam, who had realized the way people saw him did not match the way he felt since the age of 6 but did not even know about the word “transgender” until years later, watched the announcement and cried.
“I didn’t realize what a burden had really been on me ‘til I heard Ash Carter and Loretta Lynch get up to that podium and say, ‘Not only can you serve, but you’re wanted, and we see you, and we’ve got your back,’” he said. “I hadn’t realized what a big deal that was to me. … I was sitting in my cubicle crying at my desk, silently, because I didn’t want anyone to see me.”
It did not take long for that relief to turn into hesitation. In June, under the new administration, Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced a six-month delay on accepting transgender recruits as the Department of Defense conducted research on how doing so could affect military “readiness or lethality.”
Then this week, Trump’s announcement added to fears about the military reversing its year-old policy. It was lauded by Tony Perkins, the director of the Family Research Council, a conservative, Christian nonprofit, who said in a statement that “The military can now focus its efforts on preparing to fight and win wars rather than being used to advance the Obama social agenda.”
Now, in the face of uncertainty, some are choosing to lie low, even if doing so means delaying transition. “I was so excited and so ready to take the first step,” Adam said. “But now I don’t know what to do.”
Retired Staff Sgt. Shane Ortega said he had heard from transgender students in college Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs “who are even wondering if they should say that they’re trans,” he said. “They’ve asked me specifically, ‘Maybe I should reverse this part [of my] medical transition so that I can still serve. And maybe I should just stay closeted’.”
Miller of the Coast Guard added that the inconsistency this week would likely be hardest on people who were poised to begin transitioning, or who had recently begun. About 250 people have begun that process since the policy change last summer, the Associated Press reported last week.
“People not as far in their transition [as me] … they’re in a really bad spot, they kind of just put themselves out there to come out,” she said. “I feel terrible for them.”
PBS NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia talks to Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill, a transgender woman who served as a Navy pilot for nearly a decade and is now director of advocacy for SPARTA, an LGBT military organization.
J.M., who asked the NewsHour Weekend to use only her initials because she’s worried about being discharged, began taking estrogen and a testosterone blocker last July. She had ordered the medication online, since the idea of coming out to the military and starting hormone replacement therapy through a military doctor was “terrifying.”
But about five months ago, she came out to the military and started getting hormones through a doctor. The experience was validating to her, she said. “I used to be pretty depressed and I was honestly just going to deal with it,” she said. “Being able to actually work on this slowly and explore the stuff that I actually like and what is actually me, that relieved a lot of it.”
She said she plans to continue taking hormones, but fears that the military will eventually discharge her for being transgender.
Navy Lt. Cdr. Blake Dremann, president of SPARTA — an organization for LGBTQ service members — said he has also received requests for guidance. “I’ve had a couple service members reach out that haven’t come out to their command yet and they’re asking advice,” he said.
Some may not want to “‘become a target in the middle of a firefight,’” Dremann said, quoting a friend. But he also urged service members not to refrain from getting the medical services they need. “Don’t let this particular thing discourage them from getting proper medical treatment,” he said.
None of the people who spoke to the NewsHour Weekend said they were considering leaving the service voluntarily.
Ultimately, Dremann said, “We have a mission to do. We have to compartmentalize it and continue to do the job we’ve always done.”