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What serving in the military means for this transgender sailor

Megan Winters, a transgender sailor, says being able to transition while maintaining her Navy role left her personally and professionally “rejuvenated." Although the military cites little evidence that the presence of transgender service members jeopardizes military readiness, the Supreme Court is allowing the Trump administration to ban them. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to the story of a transgender sailor whose case the Supreme Court ruled on today.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, she says she is fighting not only for her job in the Navy, but for future transgender service members.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What does the water mean to you?

  • Megan Winters:

    It's freedom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For as long as Petty Officer Megan Winters can remember, she's felt compelled to serve on the water and in the military.

  • Megan Winters:

    I joined the military to serve my country. My father was in the service. He joined the Army right out of high school. And I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those footsteps took her onto the George H.W. Bush Aircraft Carrier. She works in information technology.

  • Megan Winters:

    Roughly 5,000 people coming together putting bombs on aircraft to getting I.P. services to a ship. It's just a lot of cogs and a lot of people doing really great work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Have you ever thought about your contribution to the military as different from any other sailor?

  • Megan Winters:

    Not one bit.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And why not?

  • Megan Winters:

    Because I am that small cog. I do what I'm suppose to do when I'm supposed to do it. And I do it well. I do it damn well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In her 2017 evaluation report, her commander wrote — quote — "She embodies the qualities the Navy seeks in its future leaders" and strongly recommended her for promotion. Last year, her commander wrote she ranked in the top 1 percent of her peers. And in the category of military bearing and appearance, she greatly exceeds standards.

    For Winters, that appearance has been hard fought. She was born male.

  • Megan Winters:

    It was never me. I never saw myself, looking in the mirror for so long, and not seeing oneself, in a way, your own body, like, completely betraying you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What did you see when you looked in the mirror?

  • Megan Winters:

    Not me. It was scary for so long, so many years of just not being able to relate to the person that was looking back at me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Through her mid-20s, she was self-destructive. She would drive fast and not care if she crashed or even died. And then, this moment, her first hormone therapy pill, paid for by the military, it allowed her to transition. Over one year, Megan Winters, became Megan Winters, a new uniform, a new blouse, a new dress.

    And when you look in the mirror today?

  • Megan Winters:

    I can't put it into words. It's me. It's — I'm starting to live my life authentically, and it's the best feeling in my entire — my entire life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Winters' transition became possible in 2016, when Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted a ban on transgender service members.

  • Ashton Carter:

    Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.

  • Megan Winters:

    Now, being allowed to be me in the military, it rejuvenated my spirit, in not only myself, but my job. My — just my whole being was just elated.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    She says her fellow service members asked a lot of questions. Some were rude. Most were curious and respectful. It all changed with a tweet.

    In July 2017, President Trump wrote: "The United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military."

    Seven months later, Secretary of Defense James Mattis released formal guidance. No future transgender service members, but active-duty transgender service members would be allowed to stay, as would service members who might consider themselves transgender, but remain in their biological sex.

    The report said transgender service members could — quote — "undermine readiness, disrupt unit cohesion, and impose an unreasonable burden on the military."

  • Peter Sprigg:

    Much higher medical costs, much higher utilization of the mental health system, and so forth. So, in that sense, there is a problem. They are probably not, on average, going to be as available for deployment as other service members are.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Peter Sprigg is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, which supports the transgender ban.

  • Peter Sprigg:

    These are essentially elective and cosmetic procedures, rather than — I don't accept the claim that this is something medically necessary. The purpose of our military is to fight and win America's wars. It's not to provide specialized medical care at taxpayer expense.

  • Sasha Buchert:

    To treat transgender people, as Megan has already has explained, differently, when they can shoot just as well as their peers, they can meet every physical standard as their peers, they pass every mental test that's required of them, that's a form of discrimination, and that violates the Constitution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sasha Buchert is Winters' lawyer, and an attorney with Lambda Legal that sued the government to reverse the transgender ban. Multiple circuit court cases argue transgender service members don't reduce readiness.

    Army Chief of Staff and incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley told a congressional hearing last year he agreed.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:

    Have you since heard anything how transgender service members are harming unit cohesion?

  • Mark Milley:

    No, I have received precisely zero reports of issues of cohesion, discipline, morale, and all those sorts of things. No.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As did Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson.

  • John Richardson:

    I'm not aware of any issues.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Marine Commandant General Robert Neller acknowledged concern about medical care.

  • Robert Neller:

    The only issues I have heard of is, in some cases, because of the medical requirements of some of these individuals, that there is a burden on the commands to handle all their medical stuff, but discipline, cohesion in the forest, no.

  • Sasha Buchert:

    They have had well over a year since this litigation began, a year-and-a-half, to bring forward evidence showing that there's been some effect on military readiness, and they have failed. They have provided no evidence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Winters felt compelled to serve, compelled to transition, and if compelled to leave:

  • Megan Winters:

    I do what I'm supposed to do when I'm supposed to do it, whatever I'm asked. If it's a lawful order, you follow it. So, in that sense, if my commander in chief had asked me to leave the military, I would have had to.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Throughout this process, she also struggled to explain to her father, the veteran. One of her brothers cut off all contact.

  • Megan Winters:

    My parents and my two older brothers didn't quite understand. Not only was I going to transition, but my family was going to transition with me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    She was willing to walk away from her family, but asked for a favor: the name she would have been had she been born a woman, Megan.

  • Megan Winters:

    I feel like my parents had to mourn the loss, but then to understand that they didn't actually lose anybody. They gained somebody.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That is what she hopes, despite today's Supreme Court action, the lower courts decide as well, to give future transgender service members the freedom of the water, the freedom to serve.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Norfolk.

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