Even before the U.S. military ended its ban Thursday on transgender service members openly serving, Army Sgt. Ken Ochoa, 26, already knew what it meant to openly serve.
Ochoa, who joined the military in 2010, transitioned in 2014, well before the military considered lifting the ban. He heard that other troops had made the transition and discovered an inner peace that came with the change. So he made the decision to follow suit, knowing he would silently become a different person before his fellow soldiers, his company commander, and his friends around the base.
Ochoa never formally told his company commander about his decision to transition, and the commander never asked about it, even as Ochoa’s gender and voice changed before all who knew him. His company commander never said a word to the higher-up commanders.
“We both understood what was going on,” Ochoa explained to The Daily Beast.
That’s what it meant to be a transgender service member before Thursday’s announcement. One word to the wrong person would lead to a discharge from the U.S. military. In the place of candor, what emerged was a code of frightened silence—for those transitioning, for those who supported their changes, and for fellow troops prevented from openly discussing what it meant to have a transgender service member in their ranks.
Many across the military celebrated Thursday’s announcement as a historic change. But in between the sweeping change were individuals like Ochoa who had quietly paved the way by declaring the need to be themselves, however risky.
Where Ochoa’s fellow troops once quietly asked him questions about what it means to be transgender, they can now ask openly. Where the identification of transgender service members once occurred through gossipy whispers, the military will now have an official tally. And for another minority population, military service will no longer demand living in the shadows.
To be clear, such liberation to talk about transgender service members does not automaticaly lead to a dialogue about embracing one each other. Within hours of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s announcement—the result of a year-long study—some in uniform privately worried that maybe those seeking to transition would only join the military for health care to pay for the process. Still others were frustrated that the Obama administration was pushing social change faster than the military was ready to take on, particularly just months after the military opened all combat jobs to women.
And Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was notably absent from the announcement.
“This is my decision,” Carter said in explaining Dunford’s absence.
But Ochoa’s experience suggests that service members often are quick to embrace transgender service members they know personally. That is, unit cohesion appears to override societal worries. Ochoa said he did not have a negative experience with his fellow soldiers.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to educate people,” Ochoa, of Pittsboro, North Carolina, explained.
In the defense secretary’s announcement Thursday, he said transgender service members could now serve openly, but changes in everything from recruitment to training would be phased in over the next year. In the short term, each of the services would have 90 days to introduce rules for implementation. According to a RAND study commissioned by the military, there are roughly 2,500 transgender service members among the 1.3 million active duty service members.
Seventy-seven service members are openly serving now, protected by Carter’s unwillingness in sign off on discharging them. That effectively lifted the ban well before Thursday.
Ochoa’s said his military career after 2014 has been in two phases. In the first phase, Ochoa resisted making after-hours plans with his colleagues when there was the risk of discharge for being a transgender service member.
“For me personally, I chose to say nothing. I was constantly worried about what people would think, even it was positive,” Ochoa told The Daily Beast. “After work I was 100 percent myself.”
Then a 2015 New York Times piece about his life as a soldier with a secret served as his announcement to everyone at Fort Campbell, where he serves, about his transition. Those who knew him congratulated him and told him they would embrace him. Those who didn’t identified him as the openly serving Fort Campbell soldier.
When his comrades had questions, they asked them quietly, Ochoa said. Many told him he was the first transgender American they had met, “let alone soldier,” he explained.
And yet even though he was effectively serving openly by the time of Thursday’s announcement, he felt different once the change became official. He heard the news could happen only hours earlier in the day. During his lunch break, he sat in his car and listened to the news.
“As a result of this year-long study, I’m announcing today that we are ending the ban on transgender Americans in the United States military. Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender,” Carter said.
Ochoa said he felt a swell of emotion as he listened over the radio to the words being spoken.
“I cried in the car. I feel liberated.”