Imagine enlisting in the military. The night before you're sent to boot camp, you sit in a hotel room, alone, and it hits you: You're leaving everything behind. It's unclear when, or if, you'll see your mother, your father, or your siblings again. The friendships you have will never be the same. You've signed a multiyear contract relinquishing control of your life to the government. There's no going back.
I know what this is like because I've done it.
They fly you to the city of some military base and drop you off by bus at the entrance. The screaming begins instantaneously. Your only option is to absorb it without response. They take your clothes. They shave your head. They herd you around like cattle and train you to be obedient. You acquiesce. You iron your underwear into tight little envelopes of starched precision. You snap quickly to attention. At boot-camp graduation, you become a real soldier and are afforded a brief respite with family, a great luxury because it's your first chance to wear clothes of your own choice.
After graduation, you are shipped off to specialty training and then assigned a duty station somewhere in the world. You work diligently. You call your mom on Sundays. You slowly lose touch with your childhood friends—you have little in common now. You come to understand gut-wrenching loneliness and isolation. Your duty station might be in a combat zone, and you might see battle. Your new friends, whom you bond with during times of intense stress and the alternating hours of boredom—well, they may get seriously injured, they may die in your presence, or you may die in theirs. As far as any of you are concerned, that's just another day at the office. That's what you signed up for. And you're damn proud of standing guard.
Now imagine—in addition to all of the above—you're trans. The Trump ban on transgender people in the military, which recently went into effect, is specifically about harming the transgender individuals who selflessly serve our country. Or maybe it's about antagonism toward Barack Obama, who made it clear that transgender soldiers were welcome in our military. Or maybe it's both.
NBC News has called Trump's ban "essentially a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy for trans service members." I served under "don't ask, don't tell," and I know personally how cruel that policy was. After speaking up about sexual abuse, I found myself essentially on trial for being gay and had to leave the military.
The transgender people who served openly in the military beginning in Obama's second term showed that they were no less capable than anyone else. There's Kristin Beck, who became the first openly trans Navy SEAL; army captain Alivia Stehlik, an infantry officer and graduate of the US Military Academy; army attack helicopter pilot Lindsey Muller; and thousands more. "An estimated 14,700 troops on active duty and in the reserves identify as transgender, but not all seek treatment," according to news site MilitaryTimes.
My experience during the "don't ask, don't tell" era gives me unwanted insight into how bans like this affect individual service members and those around them. "Don't ask, don't tell" had a lasting influence on my life, and it has informed so many of my decisions and the trajectory of my life as a whole. As the trans ban unfolds, I can't help but imagine the disastrous effects it will have on human beings. To be cut off by the very society one is attempting to serve is an injury that is incredibly difficult to recover from. It's like an emotional amputation, something that never fully heals but you learn to live with as best you can.
Meanwhile, with their lives and careers at great peril, transgender soldiers are continuing to serve, in the shadows, without the support of their own government. I can think of no greater quality in a hero than that: selflessness. If there were ever soldiers to go into battle with, these are the ones you want by your side.