Guest article (Originally Published - March 2021)
By Amanda Paule (she/her) / Photo by Elizabeth Billman
Just a few weeks before her college graduation in May 2019, a call pinged Jennifer Kemp’s phone in the middle of her history class. Kemp, who asked that her name be changed because of her current active-duty status in the U.S. military, glimpsed the name of her university’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program director flash onto her phone screen. She rushed into the hallway before answering, and her lieutenant colonel got straight to the point: the national Cadet Command had decided that, because of her transgender status, she wouldn’t be allowed to continue with the program.
Kemp knew there was a possibility that verdict would come down, but hearing it as a reality stunned her. She had, after all, just dedicated four years of her life to daily physical training sessions and military classes, and she had aced every task thrown her way just the same as the other cadets in her cohort.
But under President Trump’s reinstated transgender military ban, Kemp was to be cut out of her chosen career.
“Is there any chance that that’s going to be overturned?” Kemp remembers asking her lieutenant colonel on the call.
His response came through the phone as a decisive blow: “It’s unlikely,” he said.
She plummeted past tears and straight into emotionless shock. Just like that, she truly believed her military career was over.
Not “Just Another Political Pawn”
When Kemp began and completed her gender transition her senior year of college, the process was not a violation of military policy. But she became the victim of a first-of-its-kind policy reversal — in the span of three years, the U.S. military approved open service for transgender Americans in June 2016 only to ban it again in April 2019.
And two years later President Biden again reversed the transgender military ban during his first week in office in 2021. Biden’s approval for trans service members to serve openly reaffirms a decades-long trend toward a more inclusive military. From the desegregation of the armed forces in the 1940s to the repeal of the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2010 to the opening of all combat jobs to women in 2016, open service for trans Americans seems to easily follow from that momentum — but trans service members won’t forget that they’ve been the only group the military has ever welcomed only to again slam the door in their face.
Beyond the recent show of support from President Biden, no current legislation prevents another president from again reinstalling the ban.
“The next step in this is working toward making this a permanent condition that transgender people can serve in the military and removing us as just another political pawn,” said Nicolas Talbott, a 27-year-old trans man and prospective service member who became a lead plaintiff in one of four court cases filed against Trump’s ban. “We need to make sure that this never happens again, and not only to trans people. We shouldn't be banning perfectly qualified people from the military for stuff that has zero relevance to their abilities.”
Despite the Department of Defense’s bans and fickle sympathy for trans service members, trans Americans are twice as likely as all American adults to serve, and approximately 15,000 trans adults currently serve across the military’s active duty, reserves, and national guard components.
Examples of trans participation in the U.S. military, including the well-documented cases of Albert Cashier during the Civil War and Christine Jorgensen during WWII, date all the way back to the American Revolution. Kemp had every intention of joining the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of trans Americans who have served throughout the history of the U.S. military. The only difference between her and them was, this time, the military promised she could serve openly in her authentic gender without fear of being discharged.
Kemp, now 22 years old, had joined the ROTC program at her university in Pennsylvania when she stumbled upon an Army ROTC information booth at her freshman orientation. The cadets and commanders at the booth encouraged her that with ROTC she could ensure a career for herself and focus on her studies at the same time; a week later, Kemp started her first day of college classes with an early morning physical training session with her new ROTC battalion.
She had long imagined she might one day join the military. Her grandfather had served as an officer for colonial troops under the British Raj during the Burma campaign in WWII, and when Kemp was 12 her cousin, who was like a sister to her, married an Army engineer. They did their best to answer Kemp’s questions truthfully: the military isn’t for everyone, and it can be tough, verging on miserable at times — but it can also be a source of exhilarating experiences and loyal community, they told her.
That first week of her freshman year Kemp bonded with cadet James Lam* (whose name has also been changed), a fellow Californian from Los Angeles also attending the small east-coast college. For the next four years they drove to before-dawn PT sessions and trudged through field training trips side by side. When they and their fellow cadets were given practice missions to plan for during field training, Lam watched Kemp take the lead time and time again. Their senior year, he attended a trip to a shooting range that Kemp had planned and executed.
And when Kemp reentered her history classroom after taking her lieutenant colonel’s call, Lam, who was also taking the course, was the first person to hear the news that the military was rejecting her commission. The idea that in the coming weeks Kemp would only be in the audience, rather than up front, in uniform, commissioning alongside him, felt like a weight sinking in his chest.
“She had put in four years of work and by every other measure had earned a commission,” he said.
When Kemp received her gender dysphoria diagnosis in March 2018 and began her transition that August, she and her lieutenant colonel had navigated president Trump’s reintroduction of the trans military ban with the hope that Kemp would be “grandfathered in,” or allowed to serve openly under the previous rule, just the same as the around 2,500 trans service members who had come out and received a gender dysphoria diagnosis before the trans military ban again took effect in April 2019 (current military policy requires service members to provide a gender dysphoria diagnosis in order to transition, though this diagnosis is not universally considered a requisite for being trans).
But Cadet Command had decided that because she was only a cadet, and not an enlisted service member or a commissioned officer, she didn’t qualify for the “grandfathered in” exemption policy.
Prevented from Performing to Full Potential
Around the same time Kemp received the news she wouldn’t be able to commission, Map Pesqueira, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, made national news when the Army revoked his three-year ROTC scholarship due to the ban. The lack of uniform guidance on transgender policy across the nation’s thousands of ROTC programs has hindered attempts to detect the magnitude of the ban’s effect on trans ROTC cadets. Lt. Col. Bree Fram, herself a trans military officer and president of SPARTA, a national advocacy and support group for trans service members, said they’ve only been able to collect anecdotal evidence of the ban’s consequences for cadets with stories like Kemp’s and Pesqueira’s.
“A few people were in and qualified under the policy to allow them to commission and graduate, but right now as far as we can tell that spigot is completely turned off,” Fram said during an interview before Biden’s re-reversal of the military ban. “So if there are trans people in ROTC today, they likely have to be hiding who they are in order to receive a commission.”
Former ROTC cadets like Elliot Sommer, a 23-year-old trans man and a first lieutenant medical officer in the Army Reserves, sometimes wonders about the difference it could have made if he was out of the closet during his time in ROTC at Kent State University in Ohio from 2015 to 2018. Sommer recalls not being in touch with his trans identity at the time, and it wasn’t until August 2018 after he commissioned that he began to accept his identity and to socially and medically transition. He knew he was risking being discharged from the military when he came out during what looked to be the final months of open service, but he knew the greater risk to his military career would have been not transitioning when he had the chance.
While Sommer suspected and avoided the perils of trying to serve while closeted, many service members before the recent repeals of the trans military ban have not been so lucky. George Brown, a military doctor who has worked with hundreds of trans troops since the 1970s, said he’s never seen anyone able to finish a full military career while in denial of their identity. “Obviously if there were open trans service then many more people would make it a full career because they wouldn’t have to hide from themselves or hide from who they are once they are in a position to reach self-acceptance,” he said.
Sommer was able to transition and have the mandated gender dysphoria diagnosis entered into his military medical records one nail-bitingly-close day before the April 12, 2019 deadline to be grandfathered in to the pre-ban open service rule. He didn’t feel that the diagnosis fit his experience, but he and many other trans service members — including Lt. Col. Fram of SPARTA — were all faced with a 30-day window to either get that diagnosis on record or lose their military careers.
“From a psychological and scientific standpoint, you don't have to experience dysphoria to be trans,” Sommer said. “I didn't necessarily feel like I needed that diagnosis to validate my identity, but the government needed that diagnosis for me to validate my identity.” Now that he can serve openly, Sommer has seen a noticeable improvement in his leadership. He feels the experience has been humanizing, allowing him to be more vulnerable and more approachable as an officer. Looking back to his time in ROTC, he thinks that not having to hide from his identity would have enabled him to be even more invested in the program.
“It does make a big difference when you’re comfortable in your skin, as opposed to wanting to crawl out of it,” he said. For trans service members and cadets, some of that comfort could come from policy updates as straight-forward as permitting them to wear the uniform that corresponds to their authentic gender.
Lt. Col. Fram agrees that regulations prohibiting chosen gender expression have impeded trans service members. “Any time you have to have that filter in your brain that sits in between your thoughts and either your actions or your words, that limits you,” she said. “For those cadets who are willing and able to [commission despite the ban on open service] and to get through, I mean hats off to them, that is fantastic, because we need them. We are going to fight and win future wars with brainpower, and if those brains happen to be in the body of a trans person, we still need them.”
Military Might Not Be the Answer
Not all activists for trans rights have rallied behind the call to allow transgender people to serve in the military. Queer critics of trans military inclusion have noted that the vast majority of media advocating for open trans service has relied on implicit pro-military, pro-war messaging, just as the fight to legalize gay marriage in the U.S. relied on messaging that bolstered support for the institution of marriage itself.
Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and creator of the Queer Trans War Ban toolkit, is an open critic of queer and trans military involvement. Spade recently voiced his opposition in Wren Sanders’ February 2021 article “‘It’s Pinkwashing:’ The Case Against LGBTQ+ Military Inclusion, Explained” for them magazine.
“When it comes to trans advocacy, we want to ask what reforms will save trans people’s lives. The answers are clear: access to housing, income, food, childcare, health care. Military inclusion advocacy does not make the list,” Spade told them. “Further investing in legitimizing the military, an institution that causes immense harm to people all over the planet including the people enlisted, is not a pragmatic solution to trans people’s suffering.”
Brynn Tannehill, an advisory board member for the Modern Military Association of America, said she has often been called elitist for her work writing policy and advocating for trans open service. She recognizes the contrast between the lives of trans military members — who have a steady paycheck, access to healthcare, and few cases of suicide — and the lives of trans folks like Black and brown trans women who each year are murdered at disproportionate and alarming rates.
But in Tannehill’s mind, trans military inclusion remains a powerful way to fight transphobia through altering American public opinion.
“Most other trans folk in America have it way worse than trans military folk,” Tannehill said. “But unfortunately, in order to generate the sympathy and political will to go forward to protect the people who are in worse situations, we need to win this public relations fight, which we largely have, and continue to put forward trans people that America sees as its ‘best’ to be able to argue for everyone else.”
But while the case can be made for trans military inclusion at the system level, at the individual level military participation is not ideal, practical, or even feasible for many Americans. Twenty-five-year-old Jazzy Graham-Davis, for one, remembers applying to ROTC as a teenager before they realized their decision to apply was also an emotionally stunting process of “deciding to not be trans.”
Graham-Davis saw ROTC as a way to pursue their interest in computer engineering with job security as a prospective engineering officer and with the aspiration of being a part of something bigger. At the time, three years after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and three years before the introduction of open trans service, they felt they would be satisfied to express themself as “the typical butch lesbian.”
Now, Graham-Davis is non-binary and is grateful they weren’t accepted to the program. In their first year of college they decided to medically transition, and they now proudly sport a goatee and a flat chest from successful top surgery earlier last year — both are developments in their gender expression that military service would have made impossible.
Ultimately, Graham-Davis found the financial stability and community they were looking for within a civilian career and within LGBTQIA+ spaces, and their perspective of the military has turned to a disdain for the way military participation can often feel like the only option for people, especially young people, who feel they have nowhere else to go. “It's not that I have anything against the people going into it. I completely understand why people make that choice,” they said. “It's more of that I wish people weren't put in that position.”
While they condemn the military and the economic pressures that can force people to join, Graham-Davis also condemned Trump’s military ban. “As much as I despise [the military], I want people to have that opportunity, if they so choose,” they said. “But I think, for other people, really look at is that what you want to do? Or are you doing this because you have to? And if you have to, I think make sure you explore all your options.”
Capable Recruits Rejected
If Graham-Davis had it their way, the U.S. would have another option for income and housing stability equally as accessible as the military, especially for people who don’t quite fit the military mold for one reason or another.
In fact, only around 29%of Americans ages 17 through 24 qualify for military service (and thus military benefits) for numerous reasons including ability status, weight, and education level. And it’s no secret that the military has struggled to meet its recruitment goals in recent years. In 2020, for example, the Army recruited only 2,000 soldiers rather than the intended 14,000. Dr. Brown offered his perspective from the military side of this equation: “Point being, we as a country are not in a position to be turning away people who are physically and mentally capable of serving their country and who want to join.”
Nicolas Talbott is one such recruit — a fact that has brought him, at 27 years old, to be a leading face of Stockman v. Trump, one of four court cases filed against the Trump administration’s trans military ban.
When the ban took effect in the spring of 2019, Talbott was finishing his first year of ROTC at Kent State as a graduate student studying criminology and global security. He had to make a decision: continue with the program knowing that his physical exam would be automatically marked as a failure despite his ability to pass in every area except for his transgender status, or step back from the program. His legal team advised him to do the latter. When he didn’t return to the program in the fall, many of his peers and sergeants wondered what had happened to Cadet Talbott — the majority of them had no idea he was trans.
Before stepping into the media spotlight as a plaintiff in Stockman v. Trump in the fall of 2017, Talbott had kept his trans identity well under wraps. As Talbott tells it, one of his best friends, who currently serves in the Marine Corps, didn’t know he was trans until he saw an article on Facebook about Talbott and the court case. He said to Talbott that knowing him and finding out he was trans brought him to reevaluate misconceptions he had about transgender people and their capacity to serve.
Dispelling false, preconceived notions about transgender people is a large part of what motivated Talbott to become a plaintiff in the case — “to stop sitting on the sidelines” and to take the opportunity that had presented itself for him to take action in support of transgender equality.
“Even if for some reason the military doesn't pan out for me, if I can help even one other person achieve their dream and get into the military, [if] I can help them get a career, whatever it may be, I want to do everything that I can do to help every other transgender person out there who wants to be in the military, who wants to serve their country,” Talbott said.
In hopes of one day pursuing a career as an officer in the Army or Air Force, Talbott has been reluctant to start up his career elsewhere. Instead, his resumé has become a compendium of odd jobs that have fit around his school schedule over the years: bus driving, truck driving, home health care, substitute teaching, TSA, Planet Fitness, Walmart, Amazon. When the pandemic interrupted his stint in substitute teaching, he returned to an old job as a courier for veterinary clinics, transporting lab specimens from clinic to clinic.
For Talbott, the past few years of back and forth on transgender military policy have been years spent in limbo, staying in shape and studying his old ROTC materials for the day he can finally start his career and move forward. “I don't like to be told no to things for no good reason,” Talbott said. “ROTC proved a prime example of why I'm fighting this so hard. I was there. I put the uniform on. I participated with everybody else. And I know darn well I can do it again — I just need to be presented the opportunity.”
The morning of January 25, 2021, Talbott paced around his house as he spoke to a reporter through his AirPods. Reporters had been asking him all morning to respond as though President Biden had already overturned the trans military ban. They knew Biden would at any minute be putting pen to paper to reverse Trump’s ban; but during that particular call, Talbott didn’t have to fake a response. He got a text from one of his lawyers that it was official, and every moment of turmoil and toil from the previous four years crystalized into a single exhalation of relief.
Multiple recruiters have since extended offers to help him join the military at last. Last year Talbott wanted to rejoin a ROTC program while pursuing a PhD, but now with the ability to commission again within reach he can’t fathom waiting for another four years.
The 27-year-old who became the face of the crusade against Trump’s ban is done putting his life on hold.
An End to the Tumult, but a Policy Still Unfinished
Jennifer Kemp couldn’t begin to fathom her future as she told her classmate James Lam the news passed down by their lieutenant colonel. Both of them shocked and unable to process the news, they left their history class early, and Lam offered to walk with Kemp back to her dorm. They walked mostly in silence; Lam had no idea what to say.
Kemp’s fiancée Leila Collins*, a geosciences major a grade below Kemp whose name has also been changed, met her at her dorm. Kemp was in a stupor. “She was trying to process the idea of like ‘What do I do now?’” Collins said. “And that feeling of everything that she wanted and had planned to do with her life and career suddenly being ripped out from under her feet.”
But after a day passed, a second call from her lieutenant colonel pinged her phone, again during class. Again she ducked into the hallway. But this time she cried, and laughed as she cried, as her shock and stress transmuted at once into pure relief. The U.S. Army Cadet Command had overturned the decision after all.
By then, Kemp had completed more than six months of her medical transition, was passing as a woman, and felt ready and willing to commission alongside the rest of her cohort and enter the service. But the military’s one-size-fits-all, year-and-a-half “stabilization period” for gender transition mandated for the Army to put off her commission for another year. It was a small hurdle compared to the ban that nearly rejected her from the military entirely, but it was a reminder nevertheless that the policy for open service introduced in 2016 was an unfinished product.
With Biden now in office, Brynn Tannehill of the Modern Military Association of America hopes the military will now take the opportunity to revise the open service policy’s bureaucratic imperfections. At the top of her list to revisit are regulations governing transitioning and the medical administrative system, including the rules that arbitrarily delayed Kemp’s commission. “We've had trans people serving openly for almost five years now, if you include when they stopped kicking people out in 2015, and for four years now we've been letting people serve openly and get health care treatment,” Tannehill said. “And there have been no issues that have been the trans peoples’ faults. None. Zero. The only difficulties we've had are administrative, and that's because we haven't been able to fix the policy the way we wanted to.”
Though Kemp finished the mandated “stabilization” period last spring, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. delayed her commission another six months. But in September 2020, a year and a half after the other cadets in her ROTC battalion, Kemp finally arrived at her own commissioning ceremony. She tied back her long, dark hair into a regulation bun beneath a service hat belted with a half-inch gold band, a decoration that signifies the status of an entry-level Army officer. The folded brim hat (worn only by female service members), skirt, and simple heels of her dress blues ensemble marked the military’s official approval of her right to serve in her authentic gender.
In front of the small gathering — Kemp’s lieutenant colonel and her parents among them — Collins pinned one of the gold bars to Kemp’s shoulder and felt her stress dissolve as Kemp’s entry into the Army took material form. No more uncertainty, no more hitches or delays, no more news that her military career would be ripped out from beneath her. “She could have adapted, obviously, she could have made it work,” Collins said. “But throwing away the amount of skill, talent, and just incredible dedication she has to the Army would have been a tragic waste.”
In December 2020, Kemp reported to the Basic Officer Leadership Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, to complete her training as an Army armor officer. Meanwhile, Talbott labored away at his master’s and took night shifts delivering lab specimens from one vet to another. With the promise of new open service policies currently in the works, he hopes that, come his graduation in October, it’ll finally be his turn to commission.