What these transgender veterans think about Trump's U.S. trans troop ban

In a bolt of early-morning tweets, U.S. President Donald Trump declared on Wednesday a ban on transgender people serving in the military, news that for scores of veterans revived painful memories of having to suppress their identities in the armed forces.

'It doesn’t matter what’s between their legs,' veteran says

From left: Gage Gatlyn, Vivian Taylor, Janice Covington and Lara Americo, transgender U.S. military veterans, say they were distraught to hear news that President Donald Trump seeks to ban trans people from serving in the military 'in any capacity.' (CBC)

In a bolt of early-morning tweets, U.S. President Donald Trump declared on Wednesday a ban on transgender people serving in the military, news that for scores of veterans revived painful memories of having to suppress their identities in the armed forces.

Among those Americans are: 

  • A chaplain's assistant who dodged rocket fire during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
  • A Vietnam War veteran shot in the leg and nearly captured by AK-47-wielding Viet Cong.
  • An Air Force officer who enlisted to protect the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
  • And a Naval aviation ordnanceman who built bombs and trained military police officers to pass their weapons qualifications.

The conservative Rand Corp. estimated in a report that 2,450 transgender people are in active duty for the U.S. military, though projections vary and range as high as 6,000.

Trump reasoned that the ban was necessary because the "tremendous medical costs" of transgender people would burden the military. The Palm Center, a research organization supporting sexual minorities in the military, cited a Rand Corp. study that put the cost of medical care for trans troops at $8.4 million a year — or one one-hundredth of one per cent (0.01 per cent) of the annual military health-care budget.

"Donald Trump has declared open season on transgender people," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, slamming Trump's policy reversing a phased-in approach to opening the military to the trans community.
Transgender veterans told CBC News they were stunned, saddened and angered by Trump's announcement.

Vivian Taylor, 31

National Guard, 2003-2010 (2009-2010 deployment to Southern Iraq)

Vivian Taylor is shown in a photo before her transition, left, when she cut her hair and joined the National Guard in North Carolina as a chaplain's assistant. She served in the National Guard from 2003-2010. (Courtesy Vivian Taylor)

"It's extremely disappointing. I knew other trans folks when I was in the military. We work really hard, we do our jobs, we have every right to be there. They shouldn't have the president — who, by the way, dodged the draft — making their lives harder when they're serving the nation.

"It was my role as a chaplain's assistant to be a bodyguard for an ordained minister; to transport and move the chaplain from base to base. I was there for soldiers dealing with PTSD or substance abuse issues or divorce, all the other issues that come from war trauma, and we basically took care of about 800 soldiers.

"We faced a lot of rocket attacks in Iraq. For a while, we would get rocketed every Thursday night.

"My family has been defending America since before there was an America. Military service and love of country are bound up together very tightly, part of having all the benefits of democracy that include — I believe — there being rights to protections for transgender people and other gender minorities. Part of that is bound up in putting your life on the line for your country.

"I always knew I was a girl, I had made some small attempts at transitioning, but had just faced tremendous resistance. Either there was no trans health-care available, or if there was, you had to go to providers who had really bizarre negative understandings of trans people and thought this was a disease.

"We deserve full access to all the rights, responsibilities and burdens of citizenship. One of those rights, responsibilities and burdens is military service. And by God, we're good soldiers. We're not magic, we're not special, we just deserve the same rights that everybody else gets."

Janice Covington, 69

U.S. Army, 1964-67

Janice Covington, a Vietnam War veteran, was wounded and shot in the leg in 1966 before being discharged in 1967. Asked about her feelings as a male-to-female trans person about the new ban on transgender people in the military, she said: 'We went to battle, we put our lives on the line, we bleed just like they do. So what’s the big deal?' (Courtesy Janice Covington)

"I was almost captured one time. I laid in a ditch on the side of the road, it was total darkness and there were three Viet Cong came along with AK-47s and they were four feet from me and they didn't see me. I just had a side pistol, a 45 Colt. I could see their silhouettes in the darkness. I could hear my heartbeat. You ever been that scared? So scared you could hear your own heartbeat?

"I was in the Army. I was in Vietnam in '65 and '66, and discharged in '67. Back then, I couldn't come out. I didn't even know if another transgender person existed in this world. We didn't have internet, we didn't have communication.

"I survived, but I got wounded in 1966. I got shot in my left leg and I spent three months in the hospital.

"Then I finally came out full time in 2004, because I was just tired of living as a lie. So Janice said, 'I'm coming out full time, people, so watch out.' As for that other fella? He died, if you understand what I mean.

"The thing is, we went to battle, we put our lives on the line, we bleed just like they do. So what's the big deal? I can think of about 15 other countries that allow transgender people to serve in the military openly. We're the land of the free, so why can't we? It's wrong to treat people like that. We're people and we have a right to serve the military if we want to, like anybody else."

Gage Gatlyn, 39

Active Army, Navy, Army Reserves, 1996-2005

Gage Gatlyn, left, is shown in a photo wearing his Pride shirt. The photo to the right was taken before his transition. (Courtesy Gage Gatlyn)

"It doesn't matter what's between their legs. Nobody cared as long as I did my job and I did it to the best of my ability, and that's what the other soldiers, the other sailors, looked for. 

"This whole thing makes me very angry, but also very sad and distraught at the same time. There's so many soldiers out there; so many people out there who want to be soldiers, and our military is telling them 'No, you can't serve your own country.' That just makes my blood boil.

"I was in the Navy, I was an aviation ordnanceman. I built bombs and missiles and also did small arms on the range. I used to help teach MPs [military police] how to shoot their weapons so they could pass their weapons qualifications. When I was in the Army, I was mortuary affairs technician and basically dealt with death on a daily basis, doing autopsies. It's a hard job, but we have to do it, somebody has to do it. And it has nothing to do with their gender, as long as they're doing the work. 

"They're saying everybody's going to run and join the military so they can get their sexual reassignment surgery. Nobody's going to go through basic training, go overseas, fight in Iraq, fight in Syria, then come home and get their surgery. Nobody does that — if they want to serve, they'll serve."

Lara Americo, 32

U.S. Air Force, 2002-2008

Musician and transgender-rights activist Lara Americo enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. She says the new ban on transgender people from military service is 'only another step in systematically erasing the trans community.' (Courtesy Lara Americo)

"I was having a rough night last night so I planned to wake up to a piece of strawberry shortcake. I woke up instead to a notification on my phone about trans folks being banned from the military. It was surprising, because we fought so hard to allow gays in the military and I knew for a fact that transgender rights would be next. So I was surprised and saddened.

"I know for a fact there are trans people in the military right now who are hiding and can't reveal who they are, even though people who identify as gay are able to live their lives authentically. 

"I was in the Air Force for six years. I had a rough time because being a trans woman is a difficult identity to have when you're enlisted. I had to deal with those issues in basic training. Anybody who knew me knew me as very masculine cis-straight male. Which was not who I was and who I am. I was an MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] fighter and I was lifting weights and doing all the stereotypical male things just so I could blend in and do my job. 

"Around 2002, I enlisted. A year prior to that, 9/11 happened, and I was motivated to be a part of the solution and make sure America was a safe place. The biggest danger then was probably people finding out that I was transgender and me losing my job as an airman and being discharged.

"I have Indigenous ancestry, Spanish and Native American. But to be a person of colour myself and a transgender woman who has fought to make this country a safe space — it hurts to live in a country that's not a safe space, that's not equal for trans people.

"I'm afraid that this is only another step in systematically erasing the trans community. And I feel like if we don't stand up, it will be difficult for us to exist in America."

The Canadian Armed Forces were welcoming transgender recruits to the military on the same day U.S. President Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender members from service 'in any capacity.' (Chris Wattie/Reuters)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

Interviews were edited for length


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