Deployed, Trans and OUT
BY ERIKA STETSON
Losing the opportunity to serve in the military because I am transgender was heartbreaking. Finding a way to serve again was thrilling.
A new Department of Defense program called the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW) gave me the chance to volunteer to deploy to Afghanistan. I was accepted, despite being a transgender woman, and I served in uniform with the CEW as an Army employee from 2011 to 2012. After more than 10 years of civilian life, it still felt like I had come home.
It wasn’t exactly the same as rejoining the military. I did, however, have to re-establish my security clearance, qualify on standard weaponry, and receive a full issue of uniforms and body armor before traveling overseas to Kabul to serve alongside U.S. and NATO troops.
The path I took isn’t widely available, and the bar was set very high. It helped that I had 10 years of relevant private sector work history and five years of military experience before that. I also held a bachelor’s degree. I was ultimately assigned a civilian pay grade with an approximate rank equivalent to a major, though civilians don’t have command authority or take part in offensive combat operations.
I was also asked to undergo additional medical review because of my transition. The transition-related medical treatment I’ve received undoubtedly played a role in the determination to allow me to serve. The military took these assessments into account when settling my billeting. I was housed without a roommate when space allowed, otherwise I was billeted with women. Never once did this cause a conflict – things went smoothly while traveling, when staying in multi-person housing, and when using shared shower or bathroom facilities.
Several of my colleagues knew I was transgender, including CEW administrators, and at the deployed site, my supervisor, coworkers, personnel officials, legal officials, and billeting officials. I disclosed my situation to few others, because, just as when not deployed, there is no particular reason to do so except in the context of a long-lived and trusting friendship. In my chain of command, I know the chief of staff was aware at a minimum. Near the end of his tour, I thanked him personally for helping create the opportunity for me to serve again.
Legal and HR officials made it clear to me once I arrived at the deployed location that any cases of discrimination would be taken seriously and handled appropriately. No such issues occurred, and for all practical purposes, my gender immediately became as inconsequential as everyone else’s. Even if anyone did suspect I was transgender, from pre-deployment training onward, there was not a single incident. That went for my interactions off post as well, with both Afghans and other NATO service members. I was always treated professionally.
Overall, my tour was a personal and professional success. I accomplished a variety of projects and was presented with several awards, including the Army Superior Civilian Service Award and the Joint Civilian Service Achievement Award.
We have seen significant progress for the LGBT community in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) has ended, but there are still significant regulatory and policy barriers that must be overcome before qualified transgender Americans are free to serve. Yet, the repeal of DADT has helped create a more inclusive mindset in the military, which aids our cause. I can’t say with certainty whether my deployment was the first of its kind, but I hope the positive nature of the experience helps convince the Department of Defense to extend the opportunity to others who have the capability and desire to serve.
I regard military service as a privilege and honor, so it didn’t bother me that returning to duty as a transgender person meant additional layers of medical evaluations and other considerations. Rather, the fact that I was ultimately cleared to go reaffirms my faith that the American ideal of equality of opportunity remains strong. This is not to say that transgender people are on equal footing or should stop working to expand opportunities to serve—the United States is still far behind Canada, for example. But I feel my deployment is a positive and hopeful sign. It will take time for acceptance; militaries will always be cautious and slow to change. It’s intrinsic to institutions that engage in high-risk operations.
In the end, it falls upon us to prove that having transgender people in the ranks has no detrimental effect on the force’s ability to accomplish its mission. The idea that the burden of proof should be on us may be insulting to many members of our community. That’s understandable. But we are more likely to win the changes we seek by going beyond the mere demand for change and showing our quality. Dialogue is most productive in an atmosphere of mutual respect and proven capability.