LISBON, Ohio — Nic Talbott has wanted for years to be an Army intelligence officer. Instead, he has been a Walmart shelf stocker, an Amazon delivery driver, a substitute gym teacher and currently, a night-shift courier for a veterinary lab — all because he is transgender and therefore was banned from serving in the military.
But as he has driven his shift through the hills of Appalachia, he has wondered if years of deferring his dreams might end after former President Donald Trump left office.
“All I want is a chance,” he said.
Talbott, 27, has been trying to join the military for much of his adult life. He has a college degree, top physical scores, a spotless record and everything else that would make him an enticing candidate. “The only thing keeping me from serving my country is one word on my medical record,” he said, shaking his head.
That changed on Monday when President Joe Biden signed an executive order reversing the ban on transgender troops that was imposed by the Trump administration. Biden’s order also called an immediate halt to involuntary discharges of transgender troops who were already serving, and for the Pentagon to review the files of any troops forced out under the ban in recent years. The order requires the secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to report on progress within 60 days.
“Simply put, it’s the right thing to do, and is in our national interest,” the White House said in a statement.
The president’s signature clears the way for a generation of young transgender Americans like Talbott who have spent years waiting out the ban, faithful that in a nation that is increasingly tolerant, the ban would be overturned in court or reversed by a new administration. That has often meant putting life on hold, delaying careers, education and other commitments.
Because regulations created during the Obama administration can simply be reinstated, the move could mean that transgender recruits will be able to join up within weeks, according to Aaron Belkin, director of The Palm Center, a think tank that advocates for LGBTQ policies in the military.
“Basically, you just have to flip a switch,” Belkin said. He described Biden’s order as an overdue recognition that no one who can meet the standards should be barred from military service. “Today, those who believe in fact-based public policy and a strong, smart national defense have reason to be proud.”
For would-be transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, the change can’t come too soon. They have watched from the sidelines as a tug of war played out in Washington. In 2016, the Obama administration allowed people who had transitioned to a new gender to join the military, continuing a decades-long trend toward inclusion that stretched from the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948 to the repeal of the ban on openly gay troops in 2011. But in July 2017, before the new transgender policy could be fully implemented, Trump, under pressure from social conservatives, abruptly reimposed the ban through an announcement on Twitter. For a year, federal court injunctions kept the ban from being imposed, but in 2019 the Supreme Court allowed it to go forward.
“For a lot of us, life has been on hold while all this is going on,” said Nicholas Ballou, a transgender man who scored 97 out of 100 on the military’s aptitude test and was about to enlist in the Army when the ban was imposed. He has spent the years since working at hardware stores and movie theaters. “It’s one thing to not be sure of your future when you’re 17,” he said. “When you’re 28, it doesn’t look so good any more.”
Polling shows the public overwhelmingly opposes a ban on transgender people serving in the military. Even in the conservative corner of eastern Ohio where Talbott lives, and where Trump won nearly three-quarters of the vote in November, Talbott said he had faced little discrimination. Growing up as a girl, he played Star Wars and Call of Duty with a group of male friends who easily accepted him when he announced that he wanted to become a man. On the family’s small farm, where he helped out cutting hay and feeding cattle, his grandmother embraced his transition and his decision to join the military.
Even in his small rural high school, where he returned to work as a substitute teacher until the coronavirus hit, he felt confident discussing his transition with students who found his yearbook photo.
“It’s never been a big issue with anyone I know,” Talbott said. “It was just an issue with the president.”
Talbott was forced out of ROTC program at Kent State University last year and was told to turn in his uniform. On Monday morning, he said he planned to re-enroll next semester, and couldn’t wait to put on his uniform again.
“This is a moment I’ve been waiting for, for so many years,” he said. He said the excitement among scores of other prospective troops he has heard from in recent days is overwhelming. “We’ve been pushing for this for how many years? And we finally see the light. We are on deck and ready to go.”
Though the military’s culture of conformity may seem like an unlikely draw for transgender young people, some who have struggled with gender identity see the armed forces as a haven where people are addressed by rank, not by gendered courtesy titles like Mr. and Ms.; where uniforms barely differentiate between men and women; and where the culture is often far less judgmental than the communities they leave behind.
“My family, they won’t accept it,” said Leigh Maybe, 19, from a town of 3,000 in South Carolina. He enlisted in the Marines as a mechanic in 2017 as a way to start over, but was cut from the ranks before he could ship out to boot camp.
“It just crushed me, I cried for hours,” he said. “That was my future.”
In the years since, he has worked at a series of low-level jobs and waited, putting off starting testosterone treatments because he did not want anything to interfere with enlisting again. Now, with the policy reversed, he said, “I’ll join in a second.”
Proponents of the ban argued that allowing transgender people to enlist would hurt national defense by saddling the military with troops who have costly medical needs and may not be deployable. But the leaders of all four military branches and the Coast Guard have said that the thousands of transgender military members now serving openly, have not had any adverse impact on operations.
The ban may actually have hurt the military, a recent study by the Palm Center found, in part by depriving the armed forces of qualified, motivated people at a time when the services have struggled to meet recruiting goals.
The estimated 200,000 transgender Americans of recruiting age includes James Wong, an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University who, while in the Girl Scouts as a child, became an ace at survival skills, including starting a fire using only a flint and an ax.
“I like leading people, I like solving problems, I want to serve my country,” Wong said in an interview from his home in Los Angeles, where he is taking courses remotely. “The military is a natural fit for me.” Wong, 20, initially considered applying to one of the United States service academies, but the ban kept him out. Instead he joined ROTC, hoping that the policy would change by the time he graduated and could be commissioned as an officer. Before the coronavirus ended classes, he woke up at 4:30 a.m. several times a week to go to physical training, but he knew that, under the ban, he would have to quit ROTC when it came time to take a military physical. Now he hopes to continue with ROTC this summer.
“I’ve met all the standards,” he said. “None of the cadets or commanders have any issues with me.”
When Trump announced the ban, many legal scholars thought it would eventually be found by courts to violate the constitutional right to equal protection under the law. But the legal process has moved so slowly that it has effectively denied many young people an opportunity to join the military, according to Shannon Minter, a civil rights attorney and the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, who sued the Department of Defense on behalf of Talbott and other transgender recruits.
“It was a ban based on nothing but discrimination, and we all knew it would be struck down, but maybe not in time to help,” he said.
Minter has spent years fighting Pentagon lawyers. Now that the Biden administration has reversed the regulation, his lawsuits are moot. But he added that the ban had an unlikely silver lining.
“Before Trump’s ban, most people were completely unaware that transgender people were even in the military — they were caught up in stereotypes,” he said. “I think this has elevated the acceptance. It has forced people to realize there are really talented and committed transgender people that want to serve.”
For Talbott, the years of delay and rejection haven’t changed his view of military service. In the past four years, he said, he has met dozens of recruiters, commanders and fellow cadets who supported him, which has given him faith that he can succeed.
“I think, honestly, most of them aren’t interested in politics,” he said. “They only care if you can hack it. And that is all I care about, too. I want a chance to show we can do the job.”