Serving in secret: Being transgender in the US military

While gay and lesbian members of armed forces may now serve openly, transgender soldiers remain in shadows

U.S. Army Maj. Jamie Henry has served in the military for more than a decade, working as a doctor at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. But from the moment she joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at 17 years old, she had no choice but to lie about who she really was.

“I’ve been transgender my whole life,” she said.

Jamie (then James) Henry, who graduated from medical school at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in 2007.

Henry, 32, was born biologically male and named James but said she has always felt female. She knew revealing this secret to anyone in the military could mean losing the job she loves. “For the longest time, it was very difficult, very painful — much of it inner turmoil that I couldn’t express with my colleagues,” she said.

Although “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which barred openly gay and lesbian people from serving in the military, was repealed in 2010, transgender individuals must still serve in silence. The Department of Defense’s medical guidelines state that anyone with what it terms “psychosexual conditions” such as “transsexualism” and “transvestism” is disqualified from service.

In the past, many transgender troops were discharged after being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a strong feeling that a person is not his or her physical gender. The military does not keep any records of how many transgender service members have been dismissed. A study by the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that 15,500 transgender people are serving in active duty or in the National Guard or reserve forces.

Being discharged from the military has been on Henry’s mind after coming out this year. She came out to her commanding officer and then slowly to each of her colleagues. She is the first known active-duty U.S. Army officer to come forward as transgender, but her story is not unique.

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.

Transgender airman Logan Ireland, left, and former Navy reservist Brynn Tannehill at a White House LGBT pride reception in Washington, June 24, 2015.

“It felt good,” said Tannehill. “It felt very good to actually be myself and be in uniform at the same time, because the rest of my time in uniform, I wasn’t being myself.”

Since coming out, Henry is proving that being transgender in the military is possible. In March she requested that her name and gender be changed in her permanent military and medical records, and to her surprise, the request was granted.

“As I’m coming out, I’m like, oh, my God, they might be accepting transgender service members. I’ll have my career back,” said Henry. “I can just be like any other doctor in the military. That’s incredible to me.”

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