Transgender Soldiers Want the Dignity of Serving Their Country
A CIA officer writes about the men and women in uniform alongside whom she serves.
We sang that night like it was our last. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” had just been repealed, but open transgender service was a distant dream. In those days, Freddie’s Beach Bar was a second home for closeted soldiers and spies back from one war or another; a safe haven to catch a few short hours of freedom. The closest gay bar to the Pentagon, Freddie’s is the top karaoke joint of the military-industrial complex, and a gay Cheers where everyone knows your alias.
Jessie worked nuclear submarines by day, classic rock by night. Molly was our drill sergeant. Lilly, the fighter pilot and sequined temptress. Our matron Barbara, who the girls whispered was a retired general, held court in pearls. I wore my favorite black number and sang Frank and Ella—always the classics. We were patriots with dreams and families to support, but we were transgender, and my friends knew their careers in the military could be destroyed.
Those were the people I thought of last week when President Trump tweeted that the United States would no longer “accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
The president should know that thousands of his finest soldiers are trans, that some of his PDBs are written by trans intelligence officers, and that transgender Americans lie buried at Arlington.
By contrast, I enjoy the unwavering support of CIA leaders, even if being accepted as female means being treated accordingly. I was once interrupted a briefing: “Let me explain this one more time,” an official sneered, “I do not care to be lectured by little girls.”
The life of a trans CIA officer has its moments. There was that time when a colleague who’d returned from overseas said: “I think I used to work with your husband.” She meant me. Then human resources nearly canceled my health insurance because “your husband appears to have left the Agency.” Me again. Once while reviewing my medical clearance, a CIA doctor said: “Transgender? Why would you want to become a man?” Why indeed.
For the most part, I’m like any other Lady Spy: writing for the president, stealing secrets, and shopping at the CIA gift shop when I forget our anniversary. I could disappear, one of those deep-state transgenders who secretly run America. But I made a promise.
When I was just coming out, I was desperate to find other trans officers to reassure me that I wouldn’t be fired for being myself. But I was alone, the only out trans officer at the CIA, and no laws protected people like me. Ten years before, a transgender employee had been driven out of the CIA by hate and management indifference.
Fortunately, the CIA’s LGBT network introduced me to a trans officer at another agency: a brilliant, courageous, actual rocket scientist, who had faced down colleagues who’d damned her to hell. She gave me what I needed most: a shoulder to cry on, sound advice, inspiration, and a network of successful trans officers across the government. But there was a catch. She made me swear I would not disappear; to think of the others who would follow me.
Trans people are often advised: Move to a new town, forget your children, family, friends, and career. It’s easier for everyone if they can imagine that you died. A psychologist once told me that I got “addicted” to the idea of being a woman at age seven. He explained that “real trans women” harbor 1950s fantasies about being obedient house wives. His advice: “Don’t tell anyone.”
It makes a certain amount of sense. Trans people, especially trans women of color, are subject to horrific violence. Even today, it is perfectly normal for comedians, politicians, and pundits to depict trans people as predators, perverts, and diseased weirdos.
So the president’s tweets tread on familiar ground, distorting our lived experience. Long before transgender service burst into the public consciousness, closeted soldiers served with distinction. Most took their secret to their rest, in places like Arlington Cemetery. But the tweets also told active-duty trans soldiers that their sacrifices over the last decades of war meant nothing. Soldiers like my friend Jessie—who the Defense Department encouraged to come out—were left in terror of being fired or forced to lie to continue serving their country.
My brother, a Marine, tells me that during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” years everyone knew gay soldiers, but he couldn’t imagine betraying a fellow Marine. Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said the military will “treat all of our personnel with respect.” Will he enlist his Marines in a purge of their brothers and sisters?
Secretary of Defense James Mattis can look to the experience of 18 countries, including Britain, Canada, and Israel, whose militaries have had open trans service for years. He can cite the Defense Department’s own RAND study, which found minimal costs to trans service. He can ask why a trans soldier is unfit for duty when their CIA counterparts can serve at their side.
The CIA and the U.S. military stand together on front line, and are bonded by a love of country and a willingness to go where others cannot. We represent America to governments that imprison LGBT people, and we cannot defend freedom abroad if we abandon it at home.
The LGBT community knows that social change depends on our coming out, speaking out, and staying out. We learned long ago, it was never about the water fountains. It’s not about who we marry or which bathroom we use. We will not be erased from public life or denied the dignity of serving our country. We are your sons and daughters, your soldiers and spies.
I still go back to Freddie’s when I need my community and the chance to sing my go-to closer: “What is a man, what has he got, if not himself, then he has naught.” Once, a veteran in an Omaha Beach hat stood and joined me: “The record shows I took the blows.” How could we not finish together? “I did it my way.”