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Transgender Soldiers Are Hopeful But Still in Limbo

7 minute read

When the Pentagon announced plans to lift the ban on transgender military service this week, many transgender soldiers felt a surge of hope. But that joy was tempered by the anxiety of exactly how the change will be implemented and what life will be like as the Department of Defense spends the next six months determining the details of the policy.

“It’s not like the DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] ruling, where people are sitting there with their religious leaders on the steps of the Supreme Court waiting to tell them they can get married. It’s not a one shot, one kill situation. It’s protracted and lengthy and it will not be a 100% solution for everybody,” said Capt. Jacob Eleazer, 29, of the Army National Guard, who is also a chapter leader in SPARTA, a group working on behalf of LGBT soldiers. “You want to be able to pop the cork and say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s all over.’ Well, it’s sort of over. That doesn’t make as great a headline.”

Still, Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s statement on Monday offered some welcome relief to transgender soldiers who have struggled for years with obstacles to their career based on their gender identity. Carter said the working group examining the military’s rules over the next six months will assume “transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness.” Also, any attempts to discharge transgender soldiers will have to go through the Pentagon—a strong indication that transgender soldiers currently serving are safe for now.

But the next six months will also continue to be a period of limbo for transgender service members, as they await the official word on whether— and under what exact circumstances—they’ll be able to serve. These men and women told TIME they have faced a variety of responses throughout their military careers, ranging from acceptance to hostility, often depending on the attitudes of individual commanders.

Serving openly has worked well for Senior Airman Logan Ireland, who is stationed at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma. Ireland enlisted in the Air Force as a woman in November of 2010. But a couple of years into his service, when he arrived at pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss in Texas to get ready to go to Afghanistan, he took a risk. He told his commander that he was born female, but that he presented to the world as male, and he would like the opportunity to serve as a man if it was alright with the commanding officer. Somewhat to his surprise, his commanding officer permitted him to train as a male soldier, he said.

He did the same thing when he arrived in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October of 2014, telling his commanding officer that he was born female but that he had been training with his unit as a male, and left it up to her to decide how he should serve. Again, he was permitted to serve as a man. When he returned to Altus in May of 2015, following his deployment, he asked if he could continue serving as a male soldier, and his commanders agreed. Now, in his role in the Air Force security forces, the military police for the Air Force, he conducts searches and responds to calls to apprehend male suspects as a male officer. When he attended an LGBT pride reception at the White House in June, he wore a male dress uniform.

Not every soldier receives such a positive response. Across the country at the Lewis-McChord joint Army and Air Force base in Washington, Army Captain Jennifer Peace, 29, an intelligence officer who has done a tour in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan, has not been able to serve as a woman.

Peace came out to her unit as transgender in January of 2015 after a colleague who found her female profile on Facebook outed her to her brigade commander. As Peace tells it, once her superiors found out that there was no military guidance on transgender service, they looked into discharging her. They decided against it when they discovered that the Pentagon was moving toward changing the policy, she said.

But even though they kept her on, Peace said her superiors didn’t offer her the kind of support she needed. Even though she had already changed her driver’s license and passport to female, they would not allow her military paperwork to reflect her female gender, she said. They declined to let her grow her hair out, because that was against male grooming regulations, and told her subordinates to refer to her with male pronouns. She said they delayed her name-change paperwork, and asked her not to show up at unit events where she would have worn female civilian clothing.

Though Peace is cheering the Pentagon’s announcement, she is even more eager for the new policies to be announced in six months. “It is difficult because I know that we are close, and this is a bigger step than the military has taken in years, but right now, until the policies are published, it is up to the unit commanders to make any decisions” she told TIME. When the new regulations are published in six months, she said, “my life will change entirely. I will be able to go to work as my authentic self and be seen as who I am. That will make me a better solider.”

The Pentagon did not immediately comment. While the Army will be referring any proposed discharges of transgender individuals to the Pentagon over the next six months, according to Army spokesman Paul Prince, Army policy does not allow the army to hire known transgender individuals. The army policy also allows commanders to discharge soldiers because of “transsexual gender identity disorder” and “major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia such as change of sex or current attempt to change sex,” though it does not “mandate” that they be discharged. Prince wrote: “The Army is positioned to support the DoD working group during its review of the current transgender policy and readiness implications over the next six months.”

Other soldiers are wondering whether their jobs are safe in the midst of the policy limbo. Staff Sgt. Loeri Harrison, stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, is worried that her unit’s attempts to discharge her, which began seven months ago, could still go through in spite of Pentagon’s announcement. And in the meantime, the ongoing discharge process has stopped her from moving forward in her career, getting promoted, or winning awards. Harrison is concerned that she could end up being the victim of bureaucracy—her enlistment contract is up in April of 2016, and she worries that she won’t be able to reenlist, even under the reforms that will be in place by then. Whether she is right or not, her fears speak to the anxieties that transgender soldiers feel while the policy remains up in the air.

Eleazer, the officer in the Army National Guard, who is getting his doctorate in psychology, said the change gives him hope that he will be able to fulfill his dream of serving as an army psychologist. But based on his work with SPARTA, the group that advocates for LGBT soldiers, he is also concerned about how the policy will play out for different transgender people, depending on their individual circumstances: “On the one hand, this is amazing change,” he said, “but people are going to get chewed up in process.”

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