Transgender Military Members Share What It’s Like to Serve in the Closet

Yesterday, Donald Trump announced via Twitter that “the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” The announcement was a complete 180 from last year, when then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter issued a ruling allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military and receive coverage for all doctor-recommended medical care, including gender affirmation surgery. Before then, transgender service members — of whom there are an estimated 134,000, with up to 15,000 currently serving — were forced to stay in the closet, often foregoing medical treatment, in order to keep their jobs.

If Trump’s ban goes into effect (as of now, the Pentagon says no changes will be made until the Secretary of Defense receives official direction), transgender people who want to serve their country will once again have to hide their own identities to do so. Ahead, current and former service members share what it’s like to be forced to serve in the closet, along with their reactions to Trump’s announcement.

Brynn Tannehill, 42, former naval aviator, who served for 17 years.

Courtesy of Brynn Tannehill

“The entirety of my time in the service was before the end of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ [in 2011]. I knew exactly what would happen if I breathed a word of [my gender identity] to anyone. And I didn’t know any other transgender service members. It wasn’t until after the advent of social media and after the end of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ that people had enough ways to identify lesbian and gay service members who were starting to come out to go, ‘Hey, I think I’m trans. Where do I go? Who do I talk to?’

“It was really, really hard. This is something you can never speak about to anybody; you’re always looking over your shoulder; you’re always dealing with untreated gender dysphoria. You can’t talk to mental health professionals; you can’t talk to other service members; you can’t talk to anyone. People understand that life in the closet for lesbian and gay service members was very, very hard; and in a lot of ways, it’s even harder on transgender service members because they are basically foregoing needed medical care in order to stay in the closet, to not lose their jobs.

“[When the Obama administration announced the lift of the ban], it didn’t include the accession part of the policy… It was supposed to come out on July 1 of this year, [so I would have been able] to go from inactive reserves to the drilling active reserves.

[That was recently delayed], and with this announcement, it basically slams the door shut on any real hope I have of getting back in. It’s maddening, and frustrating, and just illustrates how utterly senseless this is — the claim that, ‘We can’t afford to have these people; we can’t afford to provide medical care for transgender people.’ We already know that this costs next to nothing, that the military spends [$84] million a year on [erectile dysfunction medicines]…but they can’t afford $2.5 million for medical care for transgender service members? [Ed. note: A 2016 Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Department of Defense estimated that transition-related care for service members would cost the military between $2.4 million and $8.4 per year.]

“[And] for me, I’m already done transitioning. It costs absolutely nothing [in transition-related care] to get me back. The idea that someone who lives and functions in the military environment already, in my target gender, would be disruptive is obviously wrong. And on top of that, the military spent $2.5 million educating me. I retain those skills; I still practice those skills, and the military can’t get any return on investment on that because of this.

“So tell me how this costs the military anything. Tell me how this is disruptive. Tell me how this is smart, to decide that you don’t want any sort of return on your investment, when it costs next to nothing.

“This hurts good people who want to serve their country; who want to do the right thing; who are willing to support and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, at the expense of their lives. They have families; they have units they’re supporting. It hurts those units; it hurts those families; it hurts those people, and for what purpose, other than to score a political point? Thousands and thousands of people with their lives destroyed; with their careers destroyed; with their families hurt, to make a political point [and] score a few extra votes in some Midwest states.”

Sheri Swokowski, 67, retired Army colonel, who served for almost 35 years.