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The Pentagon announced new rules Wednesday allowing transgender military members to serve openly. It fulfills an early pledge from President Joe Biden, restoring an Obama-era policy that was overturned by President Donald Trump. Ali Rogin spoke to transgender service members who have been waiting for this day.
The Pentagon announced new rules today allowing transgender military members to serve openly.
It follows a pledge from President Biden just days into his administration, restoring an Obama era policy that was overturned by his successor, President Trump.
The "NewsHour"'s Ali Rogin spoke to transgender service members who have been waiting for this day.
When Navy Lieutenant Commander Emily Shilling visits this retired warplane known as a Prowler, it's like seeing an old friend.
Lt. Cmdr. Emily Shilling:
She's tried to kill me. She's saved my life. She's been there on some of my scariest moments.
Shilling's been in the Navy 15 years, most of them as a pilot, with more than 1,700 flight hours and 60 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. For a long time, the cockpit was the only place she could be herself.
Somebody once asked me, did I ever fly as trans? Did I ever fly as Em? We're the same person. I am always Em. I always have been.
For most of her life, Shilling was known as Timothy. She came out as transgender in April 2019, two days after President Donald Trump reinstated a ban on people like her serving openly.
I spent the first 36 years of my life trying to figure this out and fight it. And I just got to the point where I couldn't fight it anymore, and I had to do something.
Now, outside work at a Naval Air Base in Maryland, Shilling can be herself. But while she waited for the new policy to take effect, she had to wear a facade, presenting male and wearing her gender-neutral flight suit daily.
You play this hypermasculine role and then come home and turn it off. It's exhausting.
In 2016, President Barack Obama declared that being transgender was no longer grounds for dismissal. The military began covering gender-affirming health care, like hormones and surgery, announced then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
I'm announcing today that we are ending the ban on transgender Americans in the United States military.
Shilling had been coming to terms with her gender identity during the Obama administration, but it wasn't the right time for her to come out. Then, in 2017, a new policy from a new president. In a tweet, President Trump said the military would no longer allow transgender people to serve.
Those who received coverage during the Obama administration could keep serving openly. But all others would have to serve in their sex assigned at birth. By the time Shilling was ready to transition, the political winds had shifted.
So, you had a time period where people were allowed to be open and serve. And then, when the ban went into place, you got a second class of people who came out too late and now had to go back into the closet.
Lt. Col. Bree Fram:
Transgender service members have been on a complete roller-coaster ride over the past five years.
Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Bree Fram is vice president of SPART*A, a transgender military advocacy group.
Her group advised on the Obama change, supported members through the Trump repeal, and is helping the Biden White House lift restrictions. Under the Obama policy, transgender service members could access care following a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, the medical term for when a person's gender identity differs from their sex at birth; 1,600 service members were covered under this policy.
The Defense Department does not keep statistics on its transgender population, but independent estimates count between 5,000 to 15,000 currently serving out of about two million total active-duty and reserve forces.
They're just in a situation where they have to dedicate energy to hiding themselves. And that's energy that could otherwise be used to go towards mission effectiveness.
Some opponents say trans members shouldn't be part of the mission at all.
Retired Army Lieutenant General Thomas Spoehr is the director of the conservative Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense. He pointed to high rates of severe anxiety and suicide among people diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
Frankly, the military is very discriminatory in its entrance criteria. And so, if you have asthma, if you have severe depression, you can't join the military. Not allowing someone with gender dysphoria to not enter the military is the same type of thing.
But numerous studies show that depression among people with gender dysphoria is linked to society's treatment of them, including discrimination, family rejection and lack of access to gender-affirming health care.
In fact, the impact the Trump ban had on the mental health of trans people extended beyond the military. The Trevor Project, an organization supporting LGBTQ youth, said calls to its crisis line more than doubled following Trump's 2017 tweet.
Amit Paley is CEO and executive director.
When the president of the United States sends a message that trans people are not deserving of respect, that has an impact on the mental health of all trans and non-binary people.
The new policy doesn't just affect transgender people who are currently serving. It also opens the door to those who have wanted to join the military, but have been waiting.
People like 23-year-old Kaycen Bradley, who wants to join the Army.
It's really exciting.
Bradley began his female-to-male transition, graduated high school and tried to enlist, right as Trump was changing the policy. But rather than give up, Bradley dug in. Biding his time, he built himself into a better recruit.
I had to think, it's not going to be forever. There's going to be a time where the policy changes.
Bree Fram hopes, this time, the change is for good.
After four more years of open service, we firmly believe that a military without transgender people will be just as unconscionable as a military without African Americans, without women or without lesbians, gays and bisexuals, because they all faced some very similar hurdles to what trans people faced.
Meanwhile, Shilling is awaiting guidance for when she can move forward.
When I go see my friends, when I go shopping, when I'm hanging out with my kids, I present as Emily. Now I can begin that process with the Navy.
And, soon, she will be able to officially reintroduce herself to the Prowler as who she really is.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin in Patuxent River, Maryland.
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Ali Rogin is a foreign affairs producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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