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In ‘TransMilitary,’ troops fight for the country, banned or not

A recent documentary "TransMilitary," follows four trans troops in their military journeys as the federal government flip-flops on whether they should be banned. As the battle over the ban continues in federal courts, NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson talks to a former soldier featured in the film and the film’s director about the soldiers' fight to end the ban and the risks they took speaking out.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    When Laila Ireland was 17 years old, she joined the Army. She was assigned to be an interrogator, and deployed twice to Iraq. Ireland eventually became a corporal, continuing a long tradition of military service in her family.

  • LAILA IRELAND:

    My father was in the military, and my grandfather was in the military, my great grandfather was in the military. And I wanted to be part of that legacy, part of that tradition. But I also understood that being a part of the tradition did not allow me to really be myself.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    That's because Ireland is transgender. When she enlisted in 2003, there was a ban on transgender people serving. The U.S. military had long considered issues related to being transgender as disqualifying physical and mental conditions. So during her 12 years in the army, Ireland often couldn't openly identify as a woman.

  • LAILA IRELAND:

    It was a difficult, having to live by the core values of the military, where I would, one of the most important ones to me is integrity. And I violated that on a daily basis by not being true to who I am, or not being able to share that.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Ireland's story unfolds in the documentary, TransMilitary, which tells the stories of four transgender troops. One Rand Corporation study estimated American forces could include as many as 10,790 transgender people. A study by UCLA estimates there could be as many as 15,500. Gabriel Silverman co-directed the film. He says the project began as a short documentary for the New York Times published in 2015.

  • LAILA IRELAND (FILM):

    There shouldn't be any issue with us serving..

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    At the time, debate had begun about lifting the transgender ban. But Silverman says stories like Ireland's weren't well known. He points to a 2015 poll showing that only 16% of those surveyed reported working with or even knowing a trans person.

  • GABE SILVERMAN:

    So here we are, having this incredibly important conversation around gender identity, but the vast majority of Americans hadn't met anybody. And we realized that, look, the ban was still in place. We have this incredible story, we have this incredible group of people that we get to follow, and let's see where this goes. And, we did.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Over the next three years, Silverman and his team continued to follow Ireland and three other trans troops: Captain Jennifer Peace, First Lieutenant El Cook, and Logan Ireland, Laila's husband, and a staff sergeant in the air force who had served in Afghanistan from 2014 to 15.

  • LOGAN IRELAND (FILM):

    n Kandahar, every day that we go outside the wire is inherently dangerous.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Besides showing what life is like for transgender troops, the film shows some of the service members lobbying high-level officials at the Pentagon to eliminate the transgender ban.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But coming out as trans to leadership carried huge risks, including the possibility of getting kicked out. After one of Captain Jennifer Peace's first meetings, word got back to her command in Washington State that she was trans.

  • JENNIFER PEACE (FILM):

    I was told that I was going to immediately go back to male regulations. To have my hair cut within male regulations. That I was going to correct people to male pronouns.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Laila Ireland says being asked to speak out in the film put the service members at risk, too.

  • LAILA IRELAND:

    My reaction was you're crazy, I can't do this, I'm putting everything on the line. And understanding that, if not us, who was going to do this for us?

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    These risks also presented challenges to the filmmakers.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    How do you film this film without, you know, outing people, essentially?

  • GABE SILVERMAN:

    All of our service members, for the documentary, understood that this is either going to come out at a time where the ban is still in place, and your career is going to be in jeopardy anyways, or the ban is going to be lifted, and we are able to release this without jeopardizing their careers. So, I think that that was the calculation that a lot of people ended up making.

  • GABE SILVERMAN:

    The pernicious aspect of this is that we can't go to a public affairs officer in the military and say I want to follow this random, you know, senior airman in Afghanistan. Why? Well, because he's transgender, because you immediately raise the red flag. So, fortunately Logan had some friends in Afghanistan who had prosumer DSLR footage, and some GoPros, and were able to capture some of the footage that gives you a sense of his day-to-day routine.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    As the film shows, a trans soldier's experience depends largely on who's in direct command. In Afghanistan, Logan Ireland had a dangerous job as the lead driver of a convoy. His commander accepted his identity…and Ireland says he fit right in with his male peers.

  • LOGAN IRELAND (FILM):

    What I like about this deployment is that I can be my authentic self.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Ireland even came out in 2015 to president Obama's Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who visited Ireland's base in Afghanistan. The visit made headlines when carter commented he'd be receptive to letting transgender people serve openly.

  • LOGAN IRELAND:

    Literally at the last split second, I decided to introduce myself. 'Sir, I'm Sr. Airman Logan Ireland. I'm representing one of the 15,000 actively serving transgender members of the military.' His eyes bugged out. And he is the sweetest guy. He's like, 'Wow. This is incredible. Thank You so much. Thank you so much for your service, and having the integrity to come up here and tell me that.'

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    While Logan was able to be his true self in Afghanistan … back in the states, Laila Ireland wasn't so lucky. She was stationed at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, where her leadership told her she had to cut her hair and tell people to address her as a man.

  • LAILA IRELAND:

    And tell them no, you know, I'm not a female, I'm a male, that was hard. It was really difficult.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Can you just talk about why it was that you kept serving in that environment?

  • LAILA IRELAND:

    Because I was able to really be and do something that was greater than myself. You just develop this sense of pride that not a lot of people can understand.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Despite that pride and all it meant to her, and her desire to serve as long as she could, Ireland eventually decided she had no choice but to leave the army.

  • LAILA IRELAND (FILM):

    So I felt that my leadership was basically building a case against me.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    An on-the-job injury made her eligible for an honorable discharge. So she took it rather than risk a dishonorable discharge.

  • LAILA IRELAND (FILM):

    I wouldn't be able to get a job on the outside. So I chose to stick with the honorable discharge

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Laila left Honolulu and moved to Oklahoma to be with her husband, Logan, and is now an advocate for trans rights.

  • ASHTON CARTER:

    Good afternoon everyone. Thanks for being here.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    In June 2016, six months after Laila left the Army, Secretary of Defense Carter made the announcement she and the other service members had been working so hard for.

  • ASHTON CARTER (FILM):

    I'm announcing today that we are ending the ban on transgender Americans in the military.

  • LAILA IRELAND (FILM):

    Yes! Yes!

  • LAILA IRELAND:

    It was a relief, and terrifying at the same time. The terrifying part was that now how do we get this policy to have a smooth implementation, amongst folks who don't necessarily believe that we should be in service, or even be in society.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And how was that for you, as a storyteller, and a filmmaker

  • GABE SILVERMAN:

    You know, we'd been filming with Logan, Laila, El and Jen for several years at that point. And so, to see this policy change for the better, and just know what that means, I don't know, there was a calming effect. From a film making perspective, you could also say we had an ending, or so we thought.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    And that's because, just over a year later in July 2017 …President Trump announced his intention to reinstate the ban in a series of Tweets. So while the issue continues to make its way through the courts, trans military members like Logan Ireland are serving in a legal limbo.

  • LOGAN IRELAND (FILM):

    What is the future going to hold for me in the military? This is what I want to do. This is what I'm focused on.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Laila Ireland says she hopes the film she chose to speak out in will help inform the debate, and help the public understand everything that's at stake.

  • LAILA IRELAND:

    We are part of that one percent of the American population that raises our right hand, and swears the oath to protect this, to protect and defend this great country. So, what it comes down to is it shouldn't really, it shouldn't matter what our gender identity is, it really should matter if we are capable and willing to do the job.

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