Retired U.S. Navy pilot Brynn Tannehill understands the frustration and pain transgender people feel serving in the shadows. She earned her Navy wings in 1999 flying helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft during three deployments. She left the Naval Reserve in 2010 to transition to a woman. She said the hardest decision was choosing between being her “authentic self” and serving her country.
“It was extraordinarily difficult, and it feels unfair,” she said. “It feels as if what I’m capable of is being wasted.”
Tannehill now works with former and active LGBT service members at the nonprofit SPART*A (Service Members, Partners and Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All).
The U.S. military has recently taken some steps to help transgender service members. This year the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy issued new guidelines that make it harder to discharge transgender service members. And the American Medical Association last month unanimously passed a resolution stating that there is no “medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals from service in the U.S. military.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently signaled support for transgender military service. In February, during a visit to troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he said, “I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.”
But as long as the ban on being transgender is officially in place, Tannehill and other advocates say the pressure to hide their gender identity can take a huge emotional toll. In June, for example, the military transgender community lost one of its own. Decorated Air Force Staff Sgt. Jess Shipps, who served for more than a decade and left last year to transition to a woman, took her own life. Henry remembers Shipps as someone “filled with joy” but dealing with “deep dark thoughts.” She met Shipps through advocacy work with SPART*A.
“Even as we’re getting so close, so hopeful, there’s still so much pain for so many servicemen. We have so much at risk to lose,” said Henry.
As the community mourns, Tannehill said Shipps’ death has encouraged her to keep pushing for change. And there is some hope that progress is being made. Last month Tannehill and five other transgender service members were invited to the annual LGBT pride month reception at the White House. The best part for Tannehill: She was authorized to wear the Navy dress whites for women.