On July 17, 2017, President Donald Trump sent out the following three consecutive tweets:
Only a year earlier, then-President Barack Obama had announced that for the first time ever, transgender soldiers could serve openly without any repercussions.
On April 12, 2019, the Transgender Ban went into effect. Those currently openly serving as trans — and having been diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” — were able to continue their hormones and treatment, and were “exempt” from the ban. This ban, however, would bar any new and existing servicemembers who suffered from gender dysphoria from openly identifying as transgender. In other words, these soldiers would have to serve in the gender they were assigned at birth or be involuntarily discharged. Also, servicemembers that are diagnosed with gender dysphoria after joining the military are not allowed to receive gender affirmation care or surgery.
In just three tweets, Trump caused a disarray of confusion and left many transgender servicemembers, including myself, in suspense. According to a 2016 RAND report, researchers estimated that transgender servicemembers medical costs would only account for an increase between 0.04%–0.13% in total health care spending for active duty soldiers. A Quinnipiac University poll found that 70% of Americans opposed the trans ban. The trans ban, therefore, created an actual disruption in military readiness more than transgender servicemembers ever have.
THE TARGET ON MY BACK
On July 17, 2017, the sun was shining down on me in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I was a US Army 4-year active duty sergeant who specialized in intelligence and deployed with Special Forces Teams. I had recently returned from one of the most difficult schools in the military aptly named Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape, (SERE) where I was training for upcoming deployments. I also recently graduated from the Warriors Leaders Course (WLC) that a class of 300+ soldiers regularly pass through to become sergeants in the Army. In the first time in the history of the school, one person won every single award: The Leadership Award, the Physical Fitness Award, and Distinguished Honor Graduate. That someone was me. Yet on this day, I didn’t feel like me anymore.
These three tweets allowed transphobia to no longer be hidden behind camouflage uniforms. Most of my fellow servicemembers knew I was transgender non-binary. This means that I don’t identify as either male nor female and planned to have a few physical alterations to for once, feel comfortable in my body. I present very masculine though: I have short hair, don’t wear makeup, and prefer what society would call male clothing. This was never truly a problem before. Sometimes I would get a few stares or called names under people’s breaths, but once my commander in chief sent those three tweets, all of a sudden I had a huge target on my back.
The trans ban created an actual disruption in military readiness more than transgender servicemembers ever have.
I started being questioned about my gender, and not knowing if the tweet was a policy in effect or what, I would respond with what I was assigned at birth: “Female”. Then I realized I was under some sort of investigation with my friends being asked about my identity. I never cared if someone misgendered me, I never went around flaunting my sexuality or identity, I never was a disruption to military readiness. Yet, after these tweets, if someone was confused by my gender, I began getting reprimanded. I had to measure how long my hair was to ensure it was in regulations with “female” standards at the time (it couldn’t be shorter than one-fourth of an inch and no length could be three inches different than another). I began being harassed in bathrooms as well, which oddly enough, was during the same time as North Carolina’s anti-trans bathroom bill. No matter where I went after July 17, 2017, I had a target painted on my back from a president whose orders I swore to obey. I never felt this unaccepted in a country whose uniform I wore to defend it at all costs.
To many who didn’t know me — who only saw this androgynous-looking soldier — none of my accomplishments mattered. My personality didn’t matter. My skills and tactics didn’t matter. My knowledge didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I was different, and publicly put on display to be a disruption and a health cost for the US military. I had families in North Carolina airports while I was in uniform spit on me and boo me. I was a combat veteran who joined the military to make an impact and be a hero, but all they could see was my gender. That is just one of too many examples of how the target on my back exposed me to physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual attacks on me. And the policy wasn’t even in place yet.
I deployed on multiple missions with Special Forces Teams, including a tour in Afghanistan in 2015–2016. There were servicemembers that I served alongside that never once questioned my gender or my sexual orientation. They did not care who I was or who I liked. They were proud to serve alongside me because I was a damn good soldier and I was a damn good leader. No amount of awards were needed to show that, but I had those too.
I stopped identifying openly as trans non-binary the day the tweets went out. Instead, I had to hide. Though, like the great soldier I was, I never stopped serving my country because I knew that we were better than those tweets.
A DISCRIMINATORY PAST
On April 12, 2019, I put my uniform on, laced my boots up, and headed into work, except, something was off. I knew it wasn’t going to be a normal day. The trans ban just went into effect and I had to make a decision. I was not pre-diagnosed with gender dysphoria, because to me, I know who I am and I didn’t want to take hormones. I only want top surgery to reconstruct my chest. I could decide to be open about being trans non-binary and then be involuntary discharged. I could remain in service and hide my authentic self, which is what I did. For the last two years I was hiding, targeted, attacked, uncomfortable, discriminated against, miserable, threatened, and felt no protection from the country I had been risking my life to protect.
In 2017, when the tweets were tweeted, I didn’t have a choice to get out of the military. I had just reenlisted for four more years and life really didn’t have other opportunities for me in the civilian world. It’s important to note this was not only me; thousands of transgender servicemembers were affected by this ban. Whether they were currently serving at the time, veterans, or thinking of joining the service, they had to make a decision that could impact the rest of their lives. There is no clear number of trans servicemembers, only estimates, and this poor data is due to the history of discriminatory LGBTQ+ policies. In 2018, the Palm Center survey found there were approximately 14,700 trans servicemembers, though others estimate the number is much larger.
Historically, the military has had discriminatory policies for LGBTQ+ servicemembers. Any same-sex relations were criminalized and an immediate cause for discharge. In the 1940’s, being queer was classified as a mental illness and didn’t allow LGBTQ+ people to serve. In 1982, the military first enacted a policy that explicitly banned gay and lesbian soldiers from serving. In 1993, the military enacted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which banned LGBTQ+ soldiers from openly serving. In 2011, Obama repealed this policy and even offered LGBTQ+ servicemembers who were discharged based on sexual orientation reenrollment in service. While this was a step in the right direction, there was a lack of inclusivity within the military environment for LGBTQ+ soldiers and also within Veterans Affairs ( VA).
There has recently been some positive gender inclusion in the military, such as opening up combat positions to women in 2015. As of January 25, 2021 (my 30th birthday), President Joe Biden has lifted the trans ban for military servicemembers. Biden also stopped involuntary discharges for openly being transgender. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was by Biden’s side as he made the announcement. According to Austin, he is currently having a team of experts studying what more needs to be done within the military and VA for gender-inclusion. Also in 2021, the Secretary of the VA, Dennis McDonough, hung the LGBTQ+ Pride Flag outside the VA Headquarters for the first time ever for Pride Month in June. And during Pride Month, Secretary McDonough also announced that for the first time ever the VA will begin covering gender transition surgery. This policy will take time to create and implement but as a trans nonbinary soldier I am thrilled that I do not have to pay thousands of dollars to be my authentic self anymore.
GENDER SHOULDN’T MATTER
I was medically discharged from the Army in June 2020 due to training and deployment injuries, as well as mental health struggles. Part of these mental health struggles were because of the fact I was not serving as my authentic self. As the culture of the world continues to change, the culture of our nation’s military must change with it.
When you are in a combat zone, you do not care what gender the people surrounding you are. The only thing you care about is that they are able to efficiently and effectively do their job. For decades the LGBTQ+ community in the military was discriminated against, oppressed, criminalized, and dehumanized. When the trans ban was implemented, I was under investigation while people tried to get me to admit my truth. This is not new: LGBTQ+ soldiers were investigated decades before me, beaten, labeled “sex perverts,” humiliated, and stripped of their rights and dignity. There are still veterans alive today that had to face harsh and dehumanizing punishments for their sexual orientation and gender identity.
There is still much work to do to truly achieve a gender-inclusive military. For one, revamping all military doctrine to be gender-inclusive is necessary, such as family leave for transgender parents and spouses. Medical care must be fully available for all trans servicemembers who seek coverage for things including, psychologists, hormone treatment, and gender affirmation surgeries. The military must ensure that all military leaders, soldiers, and civilian contractors, are trained in being gender-inclusive and that those who are not are properly documented and disciplined accordingly. After those Trump tweets, it opened up a door for transphobia and there needs to be serious damage control to ensure that door is shut and locked forever.
In the veteran world there is also much work to do. For one, all previously negatively or involuntarily discharged LGBTQ+ servicemembers must be easily able and accessible to upgrade their discharge to honorable and receive full VA benefits. The VA itself must rework doctrine to be gender-inclusive and provide proper healthcare for trans veterans. With the announcement that the VA will cover gender transition surgeries, the VA must be sure to do so in a timely manner and ensure that healthcare providers are more than fully equipped to support transitioning soldiers. Many veterans, like myself, have had to make some difficult decisions in life after the military. Some of us were involuntarily discharged, attacked, and both mentally and physically abused. Coming out of the military and not being able to receive proper care is disheartening. We all swore an oath to sacrifice our lives for this nation, yet some of us had to pay out of pocket, even our last pennies, to receive gender-affirming care.
I was proud to serve my country, but I always wished I could do it as my authentic self. I don’t know if I ever really have made an impact or if anyone looks to me as a hero, but I do know that during this Pride month of 2021, I am more proud to be a transgender non-binary veteran today than ever before and will continue to fight for all Americans as I did during my military service. I hope that one day future LGBTQ+ soldiers and veterans feel the liberation and pride during their service — and after service that too many of us never got to experience.
We are queer, we are human, and we are soldiers and veterans too. There’s nothing more patriotic than serving your country while being under attack by your own country. Thank you to the LGBTQ+ veterans that came before me, the allies that always supported us throughout the decades, and the policies put in place to protect our rights.
Esti Lamonaca (they/them) is a US Army combat veteran from Brooklyn, New York. They are currently the National Lead Organizer of Common Defense, a grassroots veterans organization.