For US transgender service members, a mix of sadness, anger and fear

Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashlee Bruce, who dresses as female at home but goes by her birth name, Matthew, at work, at home in Aurora, Colorado.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashlee Bruce, who dresses as female at home but goes by her birth name, Matthew, at work, at home in Aurora, Colorado.PHOTO: NYTIMES

COLORADO SPRINGS (NYTIMES) - Joining the Navy was one of the best decisions Petty Officer Alec Kerry said she ever made. The other was coming out as transgender.

"The Navy taught me how people can come together and work hard to achieve something bigger than themselves," said Petty Officer Kerry, 24, who is training to operate nuclear reactors and soon plans to adopt the name Eva.

"Strangely enough, I think what the Navy taught us about integrity was what gave me the courage to come out. I had to be honest about who I was with myself and the people I served with," she said.

Like thousands of other transgender veterans and members of the military, she grappled with a mix of anger, sadness and fear on Wednesday (July 26) after President Donald Trump tweeted that the US military would no longer "accept or allow" transgender people to serve - a surprise move that came a year after the Obama administration permitted transgender troops to serve openly.

Some transgender troops were left to wonder if they would face a quick discharge from the military or if scheduled medical appointments would be cancelled. And nearly all expressed dismay at what they saw as a misguided action that could purge the military of untold numbers of highly skilled and dedicated service members, bringing back an era when many troops lived in secrecy and shame.

Petty Officer Kerry, who has been taking oestrogen for months, said starting to become a woman lifted a cloud that allowed him to perform better at work, but now will likely have to stop treatment.

"People are fearful," said Ms Laila Ireland, who was an Army combat medic for 13 years before transitioning to a woman and becoming the membership director for Sparta, an LGBT military group with more than 500 active-duty members.

"All morning I've been telling them, continue to exceed the expectations, show what you are worth," she said.

Her husband, Air Force Staff Sergeant Logan Ireland, who is also transgender, could not be reached because he was in a combat leadership course, but said in a text message from the field: "I would love for my President to meet me." He added that he would like to tell him about all the "honourably serving transgender military members that are fighting right now for their liberties and for their country".

There are an estimated 2,000 to 11,000 active-duty transgender service members, according to a 2016 RAND Corp study commissioned by the Pentagon.

Since the Obama administration lifted the ban on transgender people serving, public opinion has been mixed. A poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports in June found that 23 per cent of those surveyed believed that having them serve openly was good for the military, 31 per cent said it would have no impact, and 38 per cent said it would hurt.

But enlisting transgender people and paying for their medical transition has become a political flash point, and there has been strong resistance. A monument to transgender veterans unveiled in June at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois was almost immediately defaced by vandals.

"I thought we were at a place of progress, and it feels like we're taking 10 steps back," said Mr Umut Dursun, 35, a former Marine in Miami who transitioned from female to male after his service. "We're not afraid of bullets flying at us. But we are afraid of someone's experience around gender because we don't understand it."

Some conservatives say transgender troops require too many medical procedures that would undermine the military's fighting capability, and they hailed Wednesday's announcement.

Mr Tony Perkins, a Marine veteran who is now president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, issued a statement praising Mr Trump "for keeping his promise to return to military priorities - and not continue the social experimentation of the Obama era that has crippled our nation's military".

US Representative in Missouri Vicky Hartzler recently offered an amendment that would have barred the military from paying for sex reassignment surgery. In a statement on Wednesday, Ms Hartzler praised Mr Trump for taking decisive action.

"With the challenges we are facing across the globe, we are asking the American people to invest their hard-earned money in national defence," she said in the statement. "Each dollar needs to be spent to address threats facing our nation."

Transgender troops pushed back hard on the medical cost arguments, noting that the estimated US$2.4 million (S$3.3 million) to US$8.4 million a year it would cost for care was a fraction of the US$41 million the Department of Defence spent on Viagra in 2014.

One National Guard intelligence sergeant named Mac, who did not want to give his full name because he now fears being discharged, worried that the cost of investigations to ferret out closeted transgender troops could eclipse the costs of providing medical care, and in the process drive away career service members.

"The government has invested hundreds of thousand of dollars into my training and my skill set," he said. "That's not easy to replace."

Traditional veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, whose memberships tend to be older and more conservative, have been silent on the issue, but Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which represents the newest generation of fighters, came out strongly against the president's position.

"This is backward, harmful and contrary to American values. It's also bad for national security," said Mr Paul Rieckhoff, the group's founder. "Thousands of transgender troops are serving in our military right now. An unknown number are in combat zones today."

Some young troops said they often did not know they were trans before they joined, and developed a sense of service and of self that now feel inseparably bound.

"At lot of us grew up not really feeling we belonged," said Staff Sergeant Ashlee Bruce of the Air Force, who dresses as female at home but at work uses her birth name, Matthew.

Like many others interviewed, Ms Bruce said commanders and peers had shown nothing but support when she announced, after a deployment to Africa, that she was transitioning. Buckley Air Force Base, where the sergeant works, even had her do a public service video about her experience.

Ms Bruce is scheduled to be evaluated for hormone therapy in a few weeks. If, instead, she is discharged, she said she would have no regrets because the military helped her realise who she wants to be.

"I love the Air Force," she said. "And I owe the Air Force a debt. I'm going to keep coming into work every day and doing the best I can until they tell me don't come to work any more."