At local transgender gatherings, a surprisingly large number say they’ve served in the military. Fellow soldiers didn’t care, say some, who are devastated by President Trump’s announcement banning transgender service members.
President Donald Trump’s announcement banning transgender people from the military hit Kathryn Mahan hard. “A couple times I had to find a quiet place and cry,” said the 59-year-old state budget analyst, who lives in Seattle.
It was a big deal, she said, “to be told by your president that you’re not fit to serve.”
Actually, she already served, working on an Army tank from 1976 to 1980. That was long before she transitioned to a woman. But, she said, “most knew about me.”
It wasn’t an issue, she said. “When you’re in the military, you’re looking at the people next to you and asking yourself, ‘Can I trust this person?’… Whether you’re gay, lesbian, transgender, black, white, none of that matters.’ ”
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Mahan was one of many local veterans, transgender activists and officials to condemn Trump’s sudden policy decision, which the president conveyed through a series of tweets. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” Trump wrote.
The announcement seemed to catch military officials by surprise. Local military bases referred calls to the Pentagon, which passed reporters on again to the White House.
“Nothing is concrete,” noted Joint Base Lewis-McChord spokesman Gary Dangerfield. “We’re still operating under the same policy.” He was referring to last year’s edict by the Obama administration to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military, which Trump is now reversing.
An intelligence officer stationed at the joint base, Jennifer Peace, was one of the first soldiers nationwide to come out as transgender. More have followed.
“A lot of people came out in the last year,” said Danni Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League in Seattle. Now, she said, many are wondering if they’re going to have a job tomorrow.
She said she’s heard from about 20 transgender service members around the country, including one Navy service member from Bremerton stationed in Japan and another from Whidbey Island who’s in Qatar.
A RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the Department of Defense, last year estimated that between 1,320 and 6,630 members of the military are transgender, a small percentage of 1.3 million service members.
But at some local transgender gatherings, a surprisingly large number say they’ve served. “About half of our members are veterans,” said Jackie Stone, president of the Portland-based Northwest Gender Alliance. Stone said some, conflicted about their identity, enlist to be the “most manly man” they can.
“For many of us,” added Mahan, a Port Orchard native, “it was a way to get out of a little town that had treated us pretty badly.” Serving, she said, was also a way “to prove that we’re good people, too.”
She said she could shoot a round of tank shells through a small hole from a mile away — and peers frequently asked the 6’4’’ soldier for advice.
Erika Laurentz, who flew an Air Force cargo plane during the Vietnam War, downplays her military skills. “I wasn’t anybody special,” said the Olympia 66-year-old. “We carried a lot of coffins back. That was one of our main cargoes. There was no glamour.”
Like Mahan, Laurentz was not public about being transgender while a soldier, but was recognized as different by those she worked with. “I was never mistreated,” she said. Instead, fellow soldiers seemed to like talking to her about their emotions, something they didn’t do with other guys.
Years later, after a stint as a county prosecutor in Maine, she taught criminal justice at Tacoma Community College and would talk to students who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They told her that when the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was in effect, keeping LGBTQ soldiers in the closet, they used to sit around and guess who had what identity. They would giggle and then forget about it.
As she recalled it, they told her: “We were being shot at, we didn’t care who came to help us.”