TIME sexuality

Transitioning Genders Isn’t About Glamour

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Coming out in Vanity Fair is one thing, but learning to be open with your family and friends is another

Four years ago, when I first started presenting to the world as a woman, I met my friend Jamie for lunch in West L.A. As soon as we sat down, some children sitting at the table next to ours said they spotted two men who were “dressed weird.”

I knew they didn’t mean any harm, but my heart sank, since I was a newly out transgender woman who was trying her best to blend into society. Jamie noticed my discomfort and saw how I tightened up. She knew that I was wondering what else I could do to look better. “What had I done wrong?” I thought to myself. “Did I not wear enough makeup? Was my voice the tell? What did they pick up that gave me away?”

“Don’t worry, Natalie, so many transgender women get read in front of children,” she said. “They just have the knack to read us out and spot us. It must be their purity or innocence or something.” She was trying to console me.

There was a huge flurry of discussion and applause when Caitlyn Jenner announced her new name and the start of a new life with a glamorous spread on the cover of Vanity Fair. But not all of us get a spread in Vanity Fair and a prize-winning journalist to explain who we are. For most of us, it is hard to explain ourselves. The daily awkward moments are difficult to deal with, if only because they keep coming even after the “big reveal.” The most important change a transgender woman can make is to drop the protective armor she has been carrying around her whole life.

The first thing we are taught about gender is what we can’t be. Often, while I was growing up, I heard, “No, boys don’t wear dresses. No, boys can’t wear makeup. No, boys play with different toys than girls.” I knew my heart was feminine at the age of four, but society repeatedly told me that I couldn’t show the world the person I felt myself to be. If I did, I was going to get beat up—even though I was growing up in liberal Southern California. But after 30 years of modulating myself for those around me, I needed to start the transition to the person I’d always felt was inside, or walk through the rest of my life feeling dead.

To be transgender is to know deeply that the traditional gender roles assigned by the body parts you’re born with don’t fit, and that you have to move beyond what society typically thinks of as a “man” or a “woman.” To transition to the gender that we feel is inside of us, many transgender people choose to get surgery or take hormones, but many others do not. It’s more about living in the world as a particular gender. Medical history is irrelevant—and a private matter, as it is for all Americans.

For me, transitioning meant I had to peel off the years of socialization as a man, no longer hiding in transgender and gay bars, and inviting all 30 family members from both sides over for a meeting, where my parents went through the trouble of translating what I said into Chinese for those family members that didn’t comprehend English.

It meant walking into the living room for everyone to see me, and answering questions for four hours from people who were genuinely concerned about me and the struggles I had faced in solitude for three decades. It meant feeling like my old skin was ripped off as I walked in the world raw and tender, even though I had ample support from those who loved me the most. It meant accepting that, at any given moment, people could express disdain towards me—the very same disdain that I had feared so much when I was younger and prompted me to hide my trans nature for so long. It made changing wardrobes and applying makeup seem so easy.

Shortly after I began transitioning, a transgender friend and I were trying on outfits—she a cute halter-top, and I a strapless dress with a floral print—in the fitting room of Forever 21. We overheard an employee say, “Oh my God! Did you see those two? What are they trying to be? Did you see how ridiculous they looked?” He was giggling hysterically with another coworker.

For the majority of transgender women I know, no matter how attractive and passable she is, her trans-identity will reveal itself at some point. But it’s not even having our history out there that is the scariest thing. I recognize that some people, no matter what, are going to want to make me feel uncomfortable because I’m different from them. But the scary parts for me are the moments I am labeled merely as a “man in a dress,” treated as less than human, or erased as a freak.

Two years after that unpleasant rendezvous with Jamie, I was ecstatic to start my first job while presenting as a woman. Everyone at work—I’m an engineer—would meet the me that I had hidden for over three decades.

But accompanying my excitement came the fear that I would be read out as a transgender woman. So I did what most inexperienced transgender women do in their first few years of transition: I stiffened my spine and kept a heavy curtain up to conceal my past. I wanted desperately to box up my history and leave it in the dumpster.

So even though I identified as more of a “girl next door” and felt most comfortable wearing jeans and a simple top, I constantly tried to keep myself polished and camera-ready with Marciano dresses and Michael Kors heels. Not only was I exhausted by trying to hold up this 50-ton shield of defensive armor, I was also distant.

I quickly realized my armor came with a huge cost. My friendships lacked emotional weight. To hide that I was a transgender woman, I felt I had to edit out snippets of my life, such as the fact that my ex-fiancé was a beautiful Russian woman, or my last boyfriend was an aspiring professional dancer turned electrical engineer. I couldn’t go into details about my high school days or describe the queer activist rally I had attended over the weekend. And when asked by a coworker about the name of my former rock band in San Francisco, I lied because I was fearful he would discover through Google that it was a transgender band.

I had spent so much energy to come out as Natalie—only to find myself choosing to convince everyone that I was born female at birth with the childhood of a girl rather than owning my transgender identity. So I asked myself, “What is more important, a seamless concealment of my past, or more depth in my relationships with those women whom I see as friends? Did I really make this transition to merely walk into another closet?”

Then came an opportunity to change all that. I went shopping one Friday with one of the gals with whom I was closest to at work. After terrorizing our bank accounts for over four hours and swapping fashion tips, we went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. It was there that I told her about my transgender history and my journey into embracing my womanhood. When I finished, I was so nervous, I couldn’t look at her.

Then I felt my hands being taken into hers. As I turned my head upwards to make eye contact, she thanked me for telling her, and told me she was grateful for the opportunity to deepen our friendship.

It’s now been four years since I transitioned and I am so much more comfortable with my transgender history that I can approach it as a “So what?” when I’m interacting with other people in public. It is the prose of my everyday life—not the poetry—that has made the difference.

All the work I put in to drop my defensiveness was affirmed recently. During a friendly gathering for lunch between two families, a 3-year-old named Stella observed me with curiosity as I played with my 4-year-old niece, Sasha. When Sasha felt shy about being around new people, she buried her head into my dress.

Stella blurted out, “Are you Sasha’s mom?” All the adults laughed at Stella’s innocent inquiry, but I felt as if Natalie had finally arrived. It wasn’t about putting on an outfit and makeup or getting my genitals reconfigured, but about the work I put in to stop being self-conscious and play with these kids in the way that let my feminine heart shine.

Natalie Yeh lives in the L.A. area. You can read more of her writings on her blog and the site Feminine Collective

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME celebrities

YouTube Star Shane Dawson Has Come Out to His Fans as Bisexual in an Emotional Video

Dawson made the video because he thought it could help others who were confused about their sexuality

YouTube star Shane Dawson has come out as bisexual, in a touching 15-minute video posted to his channel Tuesday.

Twenty-six-year-old Dawson, whose real name is Shane Lee Yaw, is known by his 6.7 million subscribers for his comedies, parodies and sketches that he has been uploading to YouTube since 2008.

In the emotional video, which has so far gained more than 1 million hits, Dawson says he had been confused about his sexuality all his life, but especially in the past year.

“This is something I’ve come to the conclusion through therapy and from being honest with myself,” he says. “I am bisexual.”

Dawson says he never thought he would make the video but did so because he thought it could help people who were also unsure about their sexuality.

“There are a lot of coming out videos of people who are gay or lesbian and they’re so confident,” he says. “But it made me cry because I’m not that, I don’t know who I am 100%. And I know that a lot of you guys might feel the same way.”

After the video was uploaded, Dawson tweeted thanks to his fans for their support.

TIME sexuality

What It’s Like to Be a Lesbian in Love With a Man

xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

For now, I am just trying to be true to myself

xojane

When I commit to something, I go all in. I didn’t just become a vegetarian, I became a vegan. I didn’t just cut back on alcohol when it became too much, I got sober for keeps. When I became a runner, I signed up for a half marathon, the most difficult one in the world. When I started dating a woman, I became a lesbian.

The year I came out, much to the dismay of my girlfriend who loved my long girly blond hair, I went full lesbian with a faux hawk and shaved steps. I loooooved it.

Of course, I didn’t just “become a lesbian.” I knew that I was bisexual since probably the age of six or seven when I started kissing my girlfriends on sleepovers. We would play house, and one of us would have to pretend to be the husband and the other the wife. This was the only acceptable premise of course for them, but I was kissing girls, so I didn’t care what story they were telling themselves. Sure, yes, this time you can be the girl, sweetheart.

When I had casual relationships with girls in college, I never seriously considered ever coming out because I never seriously considered it to be an option. Girl stuff was for fun, but not very serious. Since I liked boys too, I assumed that eventually there would be a serious boy-girl scenario in my future. I never imagined it any other way.

When I met my girlfriend at 24, and it became serious, I confronted my sexuality in a real way for the first time. I had never felt guilt, shame, or fear about my sexuality at any point in my life until I needed to confront it in a social and public way.

I had never once considered what it would be like to walk down the street holding a girl’s hand, or coming out to grand-parents or raising a child in a same-sex relationship. This is the lovely state most heteros get to inhabit for their entire existences, god bless them. I know it was bliss when I was there. (I can only imagine that this is something even remotely close to the blissful ignorance I enjoy as a white, first-world, employed, able-bodied cis gendered person.)

There were many sleepless nights as I came face to face with the reality of the heternormativity of my world and with the homophobia I had only ever scarcely considered a reality of my family and community. I had benefited my whole life from cis and straight privilege and never considered a time when I wouldn’t either benefit from both, or what it was like for people who didn’t.

The process maybe took about two years; I never in that time even considered the option of coming out as bisexual, though. I was in a committed relationship with a woman, we thought we were deeply in love and I thought it was forever. We talked about forever, and babies, and growing old together.

To me, in that place, there was no point in not going all in. What was the point in telling people I was also attracted to men if I had only the intention of living in a lesbian relationship for the rest of my life? I didn’t feel that it was fair to benefit from even the privileged status bisexuals maintain (objects of male desire, and perceived as existing for and within the hetero dynamic) and/or from presumed straightness. I went all in.

I got a “lesbian haircut.” I joined activist and political organizations that were fighting homophobia and transphobia. I marched in pride parades and dyke marches and became a spokesperson in public schools where I told my coming out story to kids. I started a gay blog, and I talked about LGBT issues on national television.

I did it all as a lesbian, because once I confronted the reality of heternormativity and my cis/gender privilege and straight privilege (as someone who walks around in the world often perceived as cisgendered and straight and benefits from it greatly), I felt like lesbianism was a social and political issue that mattered.

I believed that for the rest of my life, I would have to come out over and over again at new jobs, to new friends, to teachers, to my kid’s friends’ parents, to new neighbours and to authorities.

Living in a lesbian relationship meant that I would be treated like a lesbian for the rest of my life and it mattered that I not live in fear of prejudice and that I use my other class, race and gender privilege to join this battle.

Ironically or tragically, my relationship suffered from the pain of both real and internalized homophobia. For eight years, I almost never enjoyed even simple public affection like hand holding, a light touch or gesture from someone I loved when the moment might have called for it. We never had a romantic slow dance at a wedding or a romantic kiss on a beach at sunset. Things that give me butterflies, that make me blush, that make me feel blissfully desired and loved. It was a behind-closed-doors relationship and it suffered because of it.

When my relationship did end (I am sure you saw that coming!), I once again found myself in a strangely precarious situation: I wasn’t personally confused about my sexuality, but I have been feeling deep social uneasiness.

If I date a man, do I need to come out again? What will the gay community think? Will I lose all of my gay friends? Will I lose my identity? Do I want to lose that identity? What does it mean for “the cause”? How do I explain it to people? It was all about the social and not at all about the personal.

When I recently met a wildly lovely man who has made my heart burst out of my chest with passion and vulnerability and kindness and sincerity and intelligence, I resisted. How did this fit with my identity? Reverse coming out felt anxiety-inducing.

I didn’t prepare myself for was the guilt. The first time we walked hand in hand around my neighborhood, my heart was racing. When we kissed on a busy public street, I felt the heat rise up into my face. When we cuddled in the park, I felt eyes burning into me from all directions.

People were looking, but I was terribly aware that I was not a freakshow. I wasn’t been ogled. I didn’t need to be afraid of someone yelling at me, of someone being offended or someone offending me, or of violence and threats or being objectified by men. Little old ladies smiled at us as we walked by. Straight couples did little knowing straight couple exchanges.

I felt for the first time in a very long time that I could be present and be in the moment and be light-hearted and enjoy the newness of the romance, of the exchange of a smile, or the feeling of my hand in his. For the first time in a long time, the palms of my hands weren’t sweaty from anxiety and fear while holding hands in public. It was a relief.

In that relief, in that ease however, I felt overshadowed by guilt.

I am not sure how to shake it off yet. I don’t know how to not feel like I am abandoning my people and my cause, how to continue to fight the fight that is still being fought around the world and in my community for the right to walk down the street and not feel fear of retaliation, of disgust and of hatred.

For now, I am just trying to follow my heart and to listen deeply to my mind and body. And be true to myself.

Erika Jahn wrote this article for xoJane

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME World

See Gay Pride Parades From Around the World

Celebrations took place in June 2015 in countries across the globe, from Brazil to Germany

TIME psychology

10 Secrets About Sexual Satisfaction, Backed by Science

red-rose-bouquet
Getty Images

Eric Barker writes Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

  • Here’s a list of scientific factors associated with sexual satisfaction.
  • What women look for in one night stands and long term relationships is very different.
  • Age difference has a big effect on how sexually satisfied husbands and wives are.
  • Here‘s a list of what keeps men and women sexually satisfied over time.
  • Increasing the amount of good sex you have is more about self-esteem than getting kinky.

Join over 190,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME sexuality

Fifty Shades From A Man’s Perspective Is Bad for Women

Brian Moylan is a writer and pop culture junkie.

Fifty Shades of testosterone have been added to a film and book franchise that has so far resisted interference by the patriarchy

It’s no surprise that Universal Pictures ordered a sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey, considering the S&M-themed movie adaptation of the book trilogy has so far grossed almost $570 million worldwide. It’s also no surprise that screenwriter Kelly Marcel will not be back to write the sequel. After all, the book’s writer EL James (nee Erika Leonard), notoriously clashed with director Sam Taylor-Johnson and was given enormous creative control over the project.

What is surprising, however, is the narrative switch-up happening in the franchise. First it was revealed that James’ husband Niall Leonard will write the screenplay for Fifty Shades Darker. Leonard is a bona fide screenwriter with credits on several British series (and reportedly had an uncredited rewrite of the first film’s script). And earlier this week Grey, the version of the Fifty Shades tale from Christian’s point of view, hit shelves.

Grey seems like nothing more than a cash grab, another telling of the same tale to capitalize on a trilogy that sold well over 100 million copies, which is even bigger than a blockbuster in the book world. But it is also something different. With the official addition of Leonard to the creative team for the new movie, there is a growing amount of testosterone in one of the few giant Hollywood franchises that so far has resisted interference by the patriarchy, both in terms of its creation and narrative. Things could get complicated for James’ empire.

Nearly 70% of the audience for the movie’s opening weekend back in February was female, a staggeringly high percentage. Wouldn’t it make sense that the powers that be would want a woman in one of the major creative roles on the movie? When a planned Wonder Woman movie recently lost its female director, Warner Bros. hired another woman to bring the lasso of truth to the big screen, and that comic book franchise will have far more Y chromosomes filling the theaters than Fifty Shades ever will. To hire a man to helm a long-awaited film would have caused a worse and more vocal backlash than when Ben Affleck was cast as Batman.

Fifty Shades was also the largest opening weekend for a female director ever, and James had held out for a woman for her project. This not only makes sense from a creative perspective but from an activist perspective as well. Last year, a survey by the Writers Guild of America found that women wrote only 15% of feature films, down from 17% in 2009. They also only made 77 cents on the dollar to male writers, which is the regrettable standard across many sectors of American industry.

James is under no obligation to do anything to please anyone but herself, but she has remarkable control over who is making these movies and can give women opportunities to prove themselves on a global scale that they are not often afforded. On a very specific level, it’s a little gross that a man is going to be writing this project. While I have not read the books or seen the movie, I do know enough about the phenomenon—how could I not?—to know that it’s about a young woman who is seduced by a handsome billionaire who initiates her into a world of kinky S&M sex. I’m all for exploring all sorts of sexual expression between consenting adults, but plenty of critics were taken aback by the “abusive gender roles”, “anti-feminism”, and “abusive relationship” of both the books and the adaptation. Now to have it written by a man or told from a man’s perspective only seems to give more heft to those perspectives.

I don’t know what James and Leonard do behind closed doors, but for the book’s author to allow her husband to adapt her work about a man physically and emotionally dominating a woman seems a little, well, creepy. Part of the draw of the books was that it gave women a surrogate to explore a kinkier side of their sexuality that they might not have given into at home. But having Christian tell the story and giving more credence to the character who already has the upper hand seems a little bit exploitative. This is no longer about Anastasia’s decision to enter into a relationship with him — it’s about a man taking advantage of a woman for his own means, a story we don’t need to crack a book to learn everything about.

On the other hand, let’s imagine Leonard’s appointment is a compromise with studio executives who didn’t want James (who was characterized as ‘inexperienced,” “impulsive,” and “controlling” during the making of the movie) writing the screenplay herself. This way she can work with her husband who knows how to craft a screenplay and, most likely, forge compromises with his wife. And since Christian Grey’s book is sprung from her mind, ultimately he is under her power.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME health

Here’s What It’s Like To Take ‘Female Viagra’

Flibanserin
Allen Breed—AP In this Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, file photo, a tablet of flibanserin sits on a brochure for Sprout Pharmaceuticals in the company's Raleigh, N.C., headquarters.

Amanda Parrish participated in one of the Flibanserin clinical trials and lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

I just want to want my husband again—and reading '50 Shades of Grey' at least 12 times isn't doing the trick as well as the 'little pink pill' did

I was raised Southern Baptist in the Deep South. Sex was something you didn’t talk about. As a woman, you certainly didn’t talk about wanting or enjoying it. I was taught that sex was about procreation, not recreation.

I met my husband, Ben, in 2005. We had both previously been married, and we approached our relationship with an open dialogue about what we would do differently and what we thought was important. There were no inhibitions, and our relationship was sexually charged.

Then around 2008, it felt like something was missing. Before, I’d been an active initiator—flirty, playful, and frisky. But now, there was a lack of oomph and interest. I found myself trying to be asleep before he came to bed and avoiding those intimate times.

It wasn’t that when we were together, things weren’t great, because they were. I don’t have an arousal problem, and it’s not that I don’t enjoy sex or that I don’t orgasm. From my neck down, my body responds perfectly. What’s missing is the lack of desire to start. I became an obligatory participant instead of an initiator.

My doctor told me to buy a vibrator, which didn’t help, and that what I was experiencing was a natural part of aging. I began to worry, and unknown to me, Ben started to worry, too. A few months later, I was in the doctor’s office again and saw a flier about hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). Reading the symptoms, it felt like a light bulb was going off. Part of me was elated: I’m not just getting old. Another part of me was terrified: What if this can’t be fixed?

After a thorough evaluation, I was diagnosed with HSDD, and I decided to be part of the trial for Flibanserin, which has been dubbed the “female Viagra.” That description isn’t right: What I have isn’t a functional problem. Viagra sends blood flow down to the penis so that it gets erect. You can send blood flow to my vagina all day long and that’s not going to make me want to have sex. My problem is that my brain doesn’t feel desire.

About two weeks into the trial, I was texting Ben in the middle of the day when I realized that I wanted to have sex. I had a flutter, and I don’t mean in my heart. So I texted him, “I think this is working.” I was back to my normal self.

Part of my hesitation about the drug was the stigma attached to it. Would I become a sex kitten? Would I want this all the time? Would I want to jump the bones of any man I saw? But instead, it was like filling back up a half-empty glass of water. It brought me back to where I was. Before long, I was the one suggesting we skip dessert and go back home to bed.

The quality of our sex during the trial was much different. I was taught that for sex, men need a place, and women need a reason. But what I found was that Ben responded differently to me when he knew I wanted him. It turned him on in a different way, and watching his reaction turned me on, too.

We were also finally talking openly about sex. I think this intimacy saved our relationship. That’s why I’m so passionate about this pill and have testified about it before the FDA. There are so many couples that don’t talk about sex and don’t realize what’s wrong. They think that once they’re 50, they’re done. I’m 52. I don’t want to think that I’m done wanting to have sex.

I was on the trial for eight months, and after the FDA canceled the trial, my desire went away. I’ve tried other things. I read 50 Shades of Grey at least 12 times, and incorporated the fun, frisky stuff from that. I even tried testosterone, but I found that it worked much better in the workout room than the bedroom, and I was concerned about the side effects that I was experiencing.

Some people have told me that all I need is a bar of chocolate, or a glass of wine, or a beach in Tahiti, or a new partner. I get that. For a large number of women, that might be the case, and they are likely not HSDD patients. I’ve tried talking to therapists, and I think that can work for many people, too. But I’ve talked about it until I was blue in the face, and for me, all of those solutions are simply temporary fixes.

There are lots of products to help women get aroused and lubricated. This is the one thing that’s missing. I know this pill worked for me. It’s currently under review by FDA, and I hope that it’s approved. I want to want my husband again.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Music

Poet-Rapper-Artist Mykki Blanco: I’m Living With HIV

Lovebox Festival - Day 3
Burak Cingi—Redferns/Getty Images Mykki Blanco performs on stage on day 3 of Lovebox Festival in London on July 21, 2013

He's been positive since 2011

Mykki Blanco, the poet-rapper-performance-artist hyphenate, who alternately identifies as transgender and multigendered, revealed Saturday that he is living with HIV.

“I’ve been HIV Positive since 2011, my entire career,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “F— stigma and hiding in the dark, this is my real life.”

Blanco explained that he decided to come clean as a way of living up to his artistic and personal ideals. “I’m healthy I’ve toured the world 3 times but ive been living in the dark, its time to actually be as punk as i say I am,” he wrote. He added later in response to a fan, “I just cant be an image living in fear having people call me brave and it being a lie.”

Blanco, who grew up in Harlem and whose real name is Michael Quattlebaum Jr., considers his music to be a product of the Riot Grrl movement and counts among his influences diverse artists including Kathleen Hanna, Lauryn Hill, Marilyn Manson, and Lil’ Kim. He took his stage name from Lil’ Kim’s alter ego, Kimmy Blanco.

His confession was met with words of support from fans. “You make me so proud with everything you do,” one wrote. “You are a hero and a warrior,” another added.

TIME sexuality

Watch YouTube Beauty Guru Ingrid Nilsen Come Out as Gay In an Emotional Video

"This is something that is a part of me and has always been a part of me"

YouTube beauty expert Ingrid Nilsen had an important message for her 3.3 million followers this morning, announcing in an emotional 20-minute video that she is gay.

The video, which garnered more than 900,000 hits in just eight hours, featured an alternately tearful and pensive Nilsen explaining how she decided to come clean about something very personal.

“I have had this wall up for so much of my life, but it wasn’t like this brick or stone wall,” she said. “I’ve described it to my friends as this glass wall, where you could see me but you were never getting all of me, because there was always that barrier there.”

The 26-year-old social media maven said that despite a need “to take this part of me and put it in a cabinet and lock it up,” she had decided it was time for a new, more honest start.

“I want to live my life unapologetically because I am proud of who I am and I am not going to apologize for who I am anymore,” she said in closing. “This is the life that I have always lived in my head and now it’s real.”

Read next: How Gay Life in America Has Changed Over 50 Years

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Military

Gays in the U.S. Military Are Now Protected Against ‘Witch Hunts’

Such hunts were standard not so long ago

Some labels never lose their sting inside the U.S. military. “Communist,” for example, remains potent, even if the U.S. imports more from Red China than any other country. “Gay” used to be one too, or at least it was when “homosexual” was the commonly-used term. But Tuesday’s announcement by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that gays and lesbians will be protected from discrimination by the Pentagon’s equal-opportunity policy makes clear the Pentagon’s Old Guard has lost the culture war.

Talk about change: less than a generation ago, troops were investigated if commanders suspected they were gay. In fact, superiors often launched what were called “witch hunts” to find gay troops and boot them out of the service. But under the newly expanded equal-opportunity policy, any commander who orders such a hunt will be investigated, instead.

“Discrimination of any kind has no place in America’s armed forces,” Carter said at a Pentagon ceremony celebrating June as “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month.” His action adds sexual orientation to race, creed, color, national origin and gender as a protected characteristic that cannot be considered in hiring, firing and promotions. It comes as Carter weighs recommending his openly gay chief of staff, former Air Force undersecretary Eric Fanning, to replace outgoing Army Secretary John McHugh.

It’s hard to overstate how far this debate has come since presidential candidate Bill Clinton declared in 1992 that openly gay men and women should be permitted to serve in uniform. Following Clinton’s election, his proposal generated sharp opposition from U.S. military leaders, including Army General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. They were reflecting the views of many of their troops: “At the Marine Corps ball,” one Marine wondered, “will we see homosexual couples dancing and kissing?”

Congress held a hearing in the Navy town of Norfolk, Va., in May 1993 to gauge sailor sentiment toward Clinton’s idea. “There’s going to be a lot of men overboard” because heterosexuals won’t tolerate gays working alongside them aboard ship, warned a sailor from the carrier USS John F. Kennedy. Added a female sailor aboard a sub tender: “There’s going to be a lot of problems—a lot of personal injuries, if not deaths—against gays and lesbians.”

The scare tactics worked for a nation uncertain about the wisdom of integrating gays into a tradition-bound culture like the U.S. military (the fact that it wasn’t an issue for other nations’ militaries never seemed to get much traction inside the Pentagon). Facing strong opposition from both the military and the Congress, Clinton compromised. “The new policy, dubbed ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue,’ bars the Pentagon from asking service members if they are gay, but forces gays to hide their sexual orientation or face expulsion,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time. “Gay activists were disappointed by the rules, which are to take effect Feb. 5 [1994]. They fall far short of the opening of the military to gays that President Clinton promised last winter.”

U.S. Army Pfc. Barry Winchell

In some ways “don’t ask, don’t tell,” by locking gays into the closet, only complicated their lives. More than 13,000 were kicked out of the military under the Clinton compromise. And it certainly didn’t protect them, as Pfc. Barry Winchell’s murder at the hands of a fellow soldier in July 1999 showed. “The allegations surrounding Winchell’s life and death suggest that the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, far from being a neat compromise between barring gays and openly accepting them, is being carried out in a way that can create a dangerous atmosphere of intrigue in the ranks,” TIME reported in December of that year. (Winchell’s killer received a life sentence, with the possibility of parole.)

A decade later, the growing acceptance of gay men and women in U.S. society led to a new push by President Obama to end the ban. Yet many of those in uniform remained largely unpersuaded. In 2010 General James Amos, the Marine commandant, worried that openly gay men and women in uniform would be a distraction that could get Marines killed. “Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines lives,” he said. “I don’t want to lose any Marines to the distraction.”

But society had moved on. Congress and the Pentagon ultimately decided openly gay men and women could serve, beginning in 2011. Lifting the ban became such an event that TIME invited a closeted Air Force pilot to write about the shift. He did so online as “Officer X” in more than 20 columns, before revealing his identity as 1st Lieutenant Karl Johnson, once the ban became history that September.

Then, nothing.

Amid a war in Afghanistan, the relatively few gay men and women who declared their sexuality generated scant attention, and even less hostility. It seemed the nation had bigger foes to fight. Or maybe it had just moved on.

But for others, the battle continues. “We absolutely cannot leave our transgender service members behind,” Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, said Tuesday following the Pentagon’s policy change. “We again urge Secretary Carter to also order a full and comprehensive review to update the outdated regulations that prevent transgender service members from serving openly and honestly.”

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