Earning a degree and a commission from a US Service Academy is no small feat and the odds of success for Regan Kibby were stacked against him in unprecedented ways. Here’s how he beat them.
Regan entered the Naval Academy in the summer of 2015 and has vivid memories of that first year, but first in his mind was the requirement to read the newspaper that was waiting in his doorway every morning. Regan said that “actually reading the paper was impossible given our time constraints, so we became master skimmers in order to (have) conversational knowledge of international and national news.” Just a few weeks into his tenure at plebe summer, the Naval Academy’s version of basic training, one article in the paper made Regan lose track of time as his eyes locked on every word. His roommates’ growing agitation that they were going to miss their next formation didn’t deter him as he read that transgender people would no longer be discharged solely on the basis of gender identity.
Regan recalls spending “a few of my fitful plebe summer nights wondering why I cared so much. At the time I identified as a gay woman, never having been comfortable enough in my rural southern environment to really dig deep and face my personal truth. That piece of news sparked something I had long suppressed, though, and that spark started a fire that would carry me to coming out as transgender in December to my friends, family, and chain of command.” He credits the article for being the catalyst for an introspective process that he had been waiting for. Away from the toxic environment of his childhood, he realized just how much he had been suppressing his identity. The realization that he no longer had to choose between being himself and serving his country was life altering.
When Regan came out to his chain of command in December 2015 there was no policy in place to allow transition. His leadership didn’t know much about trans people, but did their best to learn and ensure he was treated with dignity and respect. The summer of 2016 brought policy, and with it, hope. Regan was directed to medical to start the process, but didn’t get approval of his plan until April of 2017. He described that year of waiting as “peak molasses wading” because he was the first to transition and encountered additional questions at every level of review, though he’s grateful that none of the extra scrutiny appeared to be malicious. However, the lack of speed approving his plan ran him headlong into another barrier. The policy required 18 months of stability in his gender in order to commission and he was told he’d need to leave the Academy for an entire year or he wouldn’t be allowed to graduate and serve in the Navy.
Regan said “I always knew I would choose to leave and come back, but that didn’t make the decision any easier. Not only was I voluntarily choosing to leave my company and my class, I was choosing to go back home to rural North Carolina for an entire year.” He left school in July of 2017, just before another wrench would be thrown in his plans. Later that month, President Trump tweeted his intent to ban trans people from the military. Regan learned about the tweets when he received an e-mail from one of his former professors that was “essentially an expletive-laden apology” regarding the situation and said that the next few weeks were fraught with fear and uncertainty as no one else from the Academy reached out to him. At that point, no one knew any more about his future than he did.
For a while, Regan was a wreck. He was interning for a law firm, but found it hard to do more than get through the days by leaning into a routine. The following month, through a mutual friend, Regan was put in touch with Shannon Minter at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the organizations that would go on to sue the administration over the trans ban. Regan spoke with Shannon over a lunch break and felt that signing on as a plaintiff on the lawsuit was a way for him to take back some control over his life. He wrestled with the idea of being a John Doe in the suit, but knew he had the potential to make a greater impact by sharing his story and being a named plaintiff. “I hoped that by sharing my story in whatever small ways I could, my story would reach someone who otherwise wouldn’t have cared, or who otherwise would have felt alone,” said Regan.
Though Regan’s case is still working its way through the court system, he was allowed to return to the Naval Academy in July 2018. He still wasn’t sure if he’d be allowed to graduate or commission, but he put everything he had into getting there. Just a few weeks before graduation, the paperwork finally came together, and on May 22nd 2020 Regan became an Ensign in the US Navy. A week later, Regan got married in a socially distanced and virtual ceremony, having met his wife in an ASL class during his year away from the Academy. Calling it “amazing timing,” Regan can’t imagine how much harder that year would have been without her. Now, Ensign Regan Kibby has begun his first tour of duty as a Surface Warfare Officer (Nuclear) in San Diego. Asked to reflect on where he’s at now, he simply said “Let me tell you, it’s a good feeling.”
Q & A with Regan Kibby
Q: When did you join the military and why?
A: I joined the military on July 1, 2015 as a member of the Naval Academy Class of 2019 (though I would eventually become a member of the Class of 2020). I spent the first nine years of my life in San Diego, and those early images of seeing ships and sailors left an imprint on my mind. Growing up, that childhood interest morphed into an actual desire, and it was high school JROTC that solidified it for me. I’ve always felt compelled to serve my country and give back for the opportunities I’ve been given, and the military called to me on a deep level.
My JROTC instructors saw potential in me and made it a point to expose me to as many options for my future as they could. From the time they first showed me the websites for the service academies though, I was hooked. They looked challenging, provided a great education and lifelong opportunity, wouldn’t put me in massive student debt, and most importantly, provided commissions. I applied to the Naval and Coast Guard Academies, and in March of 2015 got my acceptance letter to the Naval Academy. I haven’t looked back.
Q: What are your career goals?
A: Honestly, I don’t know. I was selected as a SWO(N) out of the Academy, so for at least the next 6-7 years my life is mostly mapped out. When I get to the end of that time? We’ll see. I have a few thoughts and possibilities, and definitely want an advanced degree or three, but for the next few years my wife and I will keep our options open and not close ourselves off to any paths or opportunities that might arise. I’m excited to see where I end up.
Q: How do you stay resilient?
A: I don’t have a magic answer to this one, and the truth is that sometimes it’s hard as hell. I wish I remembered where I heard it, but the best advice I ever got in this area is to build yourself a mental health toolkit. We’re always hearing about the leadership toolkit and saving good examples and experiences for later use, but we need more people talking about following that process with mental health and self-care strategies. Through the years and a lot of trial and error, I’ve managed to create a little mental health toolkit for myself. I’ve found that I don’t do that well with self-talk or philosophy, particularly of the “there’s always a silver lining” or “one door shuts another one opens” variety, but I do really well with physical action. Now whenever I feel particularly beat down, I’ll go on a long walk or ruck, climb or do yoga, or even journal or write. I have other ones too, and they’re all sitting in my toolkit ready for use. None of them are outright fixes, of course, but they help. Sometimes that’s all we can hope for.
Q: What do you want people to know about transgender members of the military?
A: We’ve spent so much time and energy trying to prove that we’re the same as other service members, and I understand the necessity for that, but the truth of the matter is that we’re different. We’re not inferior in any way, we’re not any less capable at our jobs, and we’re not scary or dangerous, don’t get me wrong, but we are different. I want people to embrace and appreciate that difference. Every trans person has been through a little bit of hell to be where we are today. We’re resilient fighters who understand what it’s like to be beat down, and that gives us a leg up in so many areas. I know, at least for me, that I am a much more understanding, compassionate, and mentally tough person because of my trans journey. One of the greatest strengths of the American military is its diversity, and trans service members contribute in so many positive ways to that.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: In October, 2019 I went to Naval Reactors (NR) in D.C. to interview for selection as a Surface Warfare Officer-Nuclear. I had been grinding harder than ever before since I got the news I was accepted for the interview stage a few weeks before. With my double major in English and History, I submerged myself in physics, calculus, electrical engineering, thermofluid dynamics, and all manner of STEM classes that I had forgotten most of. It was hard work, but I went to study groups, review sessions, met with my mentor, did mock interviews, and studied late into the night.
The actual day of the interviews was a terrifying blur. We were sent up to NR early in the morning, accompanied by an Lieutenant and a Commander, both submariners by trade who had been working with us and helping us prepare. I had two technical interviews in the morning, during which I stumbled my way through physics and calculus, some of the questions on topics I had never seen before despite my studying. Soon enough I was in the holding pen waiting for my interview with the four star, watching everyone whose last name came before “K” coming out of his office pale and shaking. Eventually I turned to face the wall so I stopped seeing them, and before I knew it I was on deck.
Before I walked into the Admiral’s office, the Commander who accompanied us walked up to me and shook my already shaking hand. He looked me in the eyes and opened his mouth, and I was fully expecting him to wish me luck or offer me encouragement about the impending interview. Instead, he thanked me. He thanked me for not being scared to be open about my religion, and told me that as someone who had been discriminated against for his own faith throughout his life, he admired and appreciated my openness.
Some important context here is that I’m Jewish, and I wear a kippah. My faith is vitally important to me, and covering my head is a practice I value dearly. Being visibly Jewish doesn’t always lead to the most comfortable of interactions, but I’ve never wavered. The thing is, before I was thanked by this Commander, who is the single best leader I have ever encountered and is widely revered at the Academy, I had never really conceptualized my religious observance as helping others. I saw it as a profoundly personal choice that just happens to be visible to others.
His comment both shocked and empowered me, and into the interview I went. I emerged less than five minutes later, though it felt like a lifetime, and went into the hallway to wait under the portrait of Admiral Rickover for the result. The Commander and Lieutenant walked up to me, shook my hand, and welcomed me to the community. I cried, and it was one of my happiest Academy days.
I mention this moment because it helps me conceptualize how much being ourselves matters across all areas, including but not limited to being trans. For those who are safe and comfortable to do so, opening up about aspects of your identity has an impact on a wide variety of people. I’ve talked to a lot of people, including many strangers, about being trans, Jewish, queer, from the South, and any number of other aspects of my identity. I’ve come to realize that all of it matters, and I live my life with that purpose as best I can.