‘We Want to Lead’: Transgender Troops Fight to Serve, a Year After Trump’s Military Ban Began
A year after Trump’s ban on trans troops was enacted, one group can serve openly, another cannot, others seek waivers, and some potential recruits are still determined to join.
Kaycen Bradley wants to join the Marines. But because of President Trump’s ban on transgender people joining the armed forces—formalized just over a year ago—he cannot. For the same reason, “RJ,” a trans man from California who wants to join the National Guard, cannot do so.
“Frankly, after having this president for the last few years, nothing surprises me anymore,” RJ told The Daily Beast. “It’s really terrible how we, trans people, became political scapegoats. We just want to serve and live our lives. We are not the bogeymen as we are portrayed. We’re just people.”
Both Bradley and RJ, like many other trans people keen to serve their country, are in a kind of limbo trying to find a way past the ban to do the jobs they want to do, or waiting for a change of presidency and—they hope—the end of the ban itself.
Lt. Col. Bree Fram, an active duty astronautical engineer (rocket scientist) in the U.S. Air Force and a spokesperson for the trans military advocacy organization Spart*a, said that a year after the ban was officially enacted on April 12, 2019, a set of distinct groupings has emerged.
“There is a group of out-transgender individuals exempt from the ban and able to continue serving and receive medical treatment,” Fram said. She is part of this group—estimated at around 1,600 people, all with diagnoses of gender dysphoria predating the ban—having come out as trans in 2016, when President Obama originally lifted the ban on transgender service.
“We are held to the exact same standards as our colleagues, and we provide an example of positive service by trans individuals,” said Fram.
Fram said a second, much larger group of trans people serving is non-exempt from the ban, and did not receive a diagnosis of gender dysphoria before the policy went into place. They have been forced to serve in their sex assigned at birth and are not able to access medical care or receive gender-affirming surgery.
Spart*a said this group numbers anywhere between 2,000 and 13,000 troops. A more accurate figure is impossible to deduce, Fram said, because the Department of Defense does not keep such data.
“In many cases these service members are hiding their being transgender because of the environment they are in,” said Fram. “They have to serve in the shadows.”
Some people within this group are in the process of trying to obtain waivers that would confer exemption from the ban and provide a way for them to receive medical care and a way to transition within the military. Key to such a waiver would be a determination by a medical professional that transition is medically necessary for the person concerned.
“Each service member seeking a waiver is risking a career to be their authentic selves and be better at their jobs,” said Fram.
Fram said no waiver application has yet been adjudicated—either granted or rejected—and Spart*a is awaiting such a ruling and any rationale emerging from it to see how effective the waiver process is going forward.
If a waiver is granted, it will lay out an example for others and will effectively question the existence of the ban. If a waiver or waivers are rejected, it will open up the possibility of those trans service members being discharged, said Fram.
Fram, who has served for 17-1/2 years, said she has had a “wonderful experience” since coming out in 2016.
“I have experienced nothing but support from my colleagues, superiors, and people who work for me. We are focused on our mission. My change had no relevance to that. We just want to get the jobs we do done. It’s been a great experience, but not the same for so many trans people trying to do their jobs under a cloud, and the mental energy they have to expend on discrimination. That’s a real challenge.”
Another group of trans people, taking hormones and/or already having undergone gender transition, have been effectively prevented from even applying to join the military, “which is very disappointing, as these people may have critical skills in the current effort against COVID-19,” said Fram.
Recruiters have reportedly been telling these potential trans recruits that they have the option of serving in the sex assigned to them at birth. Doing that might involve them having to de-transition. Fram said these potential recruits can also seek a waiver to the ban.
RJ, from California, told The Daily Beast that a job recruiter was “really nice” when he originally showed an interest in serving. The 27-year-old began the application process in late 2018. He scored well on the Guard’s ASVAB test. But at one meeting, he joined with RJ’s father in trying to encourage him to de-transition, or as they put it to RJ, “to go back to being a girl.” Following that meeting the recruiter ghosted RJ.
“I’ve had a hysterectomy and top surgery, I’m pretty hairy. I would not do well if I was put with females,” said RJ. “The recruiter and my father seemed to be saying why I should let something as stupid and arbitrary as my gender get in the way of my ability to serve. After five years of transitioning, it was kind of insulting and felt like a very unfair situation to be put in. There is no reasonable way for me to de-transition, and it is not something I would want to do—besides the fact it would impact my physical capabilities.”
Since the ban was formalized in April 2019, RJ’s application process has ground to a halt.
Kaycen Bradley, raised in small-town Kentucky and now living in San Bruno, California, told The Daily Beast that everything was in place for his Marines application, and he was in the final few months of being 18 months post-surgery when the ban was made official “and everything completely stopped.”
Since then, Bradley, 22, has been “in limbo,” still physically training alongside others in the Marines’ delayed entry program. He came out as trans just after Trump’s first tweets about banning trans service members in 2017, intended as red meat for the religious hard right.
After those tweets, a recruiter told Bradley that “if I stayed with my birth-assigned gender I would be fine, but I obviously wasn’t comfortable with that.”
Bradley is wary of terminating the application process in case the policy suddenly changes in trans service members’ favor, and he is left having to start it all over again.
“People need to do what is medically necessary for them to do,” said Fram. “If their desire to serve is such that they can serve under those conditions, we welcome them into the military, but we say they must absolutely take care of their medical needs first and then everything should follow after that. Spart*a as an organization does not recommend anyone de-transition. It’s not something likely to be healthy for the person.”
“I’ve seen a lot of dirtbag people able to enlist,” Bradley told The Daily Beast. “Then you have someone like me or my friends, who are the ideal people you’d want as Marines. We are able to do everything other recruits can do. We want to lead. It’s something I am willing to wait for. I’ve worked so hard for it. This is what I want to do.”
“There’s no reason for the ban, especially at this very moment when the military is having trouble recruiting people because of the virus,” said Bradley. “Trans individuals are willing to go in right now and they can’t. If the military was truly worried about numbers, they wouldn’t be banning or excluding a whole community of people. We have a lot of people who don’t want to serve. Why recruit those people? It’s not efficient for the military. I really do believe the ban is only hurting the military right now.”
“Maybe if Trump gets voted out of office, the ban will get repealed,” said RJ. “I’m not keen the Supreme Court, which seems to have gone to the right, will take our side [in the cases currently before it]. I’m going to finish my surgeries and hope at some point in the future the country will be in a better place where I can actually join. I’m not too optimistic. By the time things turn around, I might be too old, and if Trump gets re-elected, then that’s it.”
“It’s very frustrating,” said RJ. “I know I am more than capable. It sucks constantly being put in this position, with people telling me I am not ‘fit’ for this and that. The ban is ridiculous.”
“To live in a world where we are told we are destructive to unit cohesion or a burden to the military, even though our service stories tell otherwise, is a tough world to live in,” said Fram.
In a written statement sent in response to a number of Daily Beast questions, DoD spokesperson Jessica R. Maxwell said, “We value the service of all individuals who can meet our standards. If you are a transgender individual, you are welcome to serve. The Department’s policy is not a ban on transgender persons. In fact, it actually prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity for accession, retention, or separation.
“The policy ends presumptive accommodations for individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria, which is a serious health condition. In that respect, it treats individuals with this condition in the same manner as other related conditions for both accession and retention. All service members—equally—must meet established readiness standards.”
In response, Emma Shinn, President of Spart*a, told The Daily Beast: “The DoD’s position that they are treating trans troops the same as others with ‘related conditions’ belies the fact that there have been no waivers approved for trans troops in over a year, all while thousands of potential applicants are turned away at the recruiting door—during a time of global emergency no less—and up to 13,000 actively-serving troops are asked to choose between receiving medically-necessary care and continuing to to serve in uniform, despite proof that transition does not negatively affect military readiness, cohesion, or morale.
“The DoD’s policy creates separate, but unequal, classes of individuals, many of whom are barred from serving or receiving necessary, appropriate medical care.”
Many trans service members hope positive change will ultimately prevail, said Fram. “They are trying to make it through this period. Some are depressed and concerned. But many are trying to set a good example of ‘mission accomplished’ and hope that one day that there will be an environment that allows them to serve.
“Spart*a as an organization would definitely like to see a return to open service. It’s in the best interests of the nation and number of individuals who just want to serve the country they believe in.”
“There’s no doubt that if I was in the military I would honestly give everything,” said Bradley. “I would be ready to give my life for my country. Whatever they needed me to do, I would do. I would be the kind of leader they need right now. The fact I am unable to serve is very frustrating.”