When President Biden signed an executive order on Monday reversing the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military, Kara Corcoran, for one, breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m ecstatic,” the Army infantry officer, currently stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas, tells Yahoo Life. “Now we can serve and focus on our profession and being the most effective service members we can be, rather than worrying about whether or not we can live authentically and continue to serve. It is a great weight lifted off of all our shoulders to be able to move forward and to focus on serving our country.”
Corcoran is just one of the estimated 14,700 transgender troops currently serving in active duty or reserves, according to a December report by the nonpartisan Palm Center research institute, which found the ban to actually harm military readiness.
And she’s just one of the many military members who have been on an emotional rollercoaster since at least 2016. That’s when President Barack Obama’s administration announced, “Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly,” lifting what had been a ban on such service. (The administration had already repealed “don’t ask don’t tell,” regarding gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, in 2011.) Then the ban was reinstated, without warning, following a 2017 tweet by President Donald Trump that set off confusion, panic, blocks by judges and four separate legal challenges. The ban was made official on April 12, 2019, noting that any current transgender service member who came out or was found out and would not renounce their identity would be subject to discharge.
All four legal challenges are still pending, according to Peter Perkowski, legal and policy director for the Modern Military Association of America, which has driven the court challenges along with Lambda Legal. “Once we see the language of the executive order,” Perkwoski tells Yahoo Life, “we’ll evaluate how that would affect the ongoing cases.”
For now, though, transgender service members are rejoicing — telling Yahoo Life, after being connected through trans-military advocacy group SPARTA, that Monday’s announcement has made them feel “euphoric,” “relieved,” “excited” and “like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.” That last comment comes from 23-year-old Kazper Lewis, who has had to remain in the closet with his male identity since graduating from West Point in spring of 2020 and beginning his Army service at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“I changed my name in 2018, but held off on getting a medical diagnosis, because we heard this news [of the ban reversal] might be coming,” Lewis says, referring to the gender dysphoria diagnosis that will now — as it did before the latest ban — set off a system of support for medical transitions, including hormone therapy and surgeries. It will allow Lewis, who has wanted to be in the military “since about fifth grade,” to start the process of changing his gender marker from female to male, and to connect with a medical provider to create a transition plan.
Corcoran, meanwhile, was among the several hundred service members who had previously transitioned or were able to rush through the process within 30 days of the ban’s announcement, achieving “exempt” status.
But the ban still took its toll.
‘Exempt’ but not protected
“The most difficult thing has been consoling service members who were stuck on the other side of the ban, telling them to hold onto hope, waiting for the change of administration,” she recalls. Corcoran, who comes from a military family and enlisted in 2008, when “the idea of being a woman in combat, being trans in combat, and especially being both, was out of the question,” served as a male company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army, becoming a master parachutist and serving twice in Afghanistan. She began her transition, which she says is still ongoing, in 2018, just days before she and her spouse became parents to twins.
“It’s very difficult,” she continues, “to have a phone call with somebody and tell them they cannot live authentically, when meanwhile, you yourself are, and are being the most effective soldier you’ve ever been in your career because of it.”
Sterling James Crutcher, 32, who started working on B-52 aircraft bombs in the Air Force but retrained last year to work in religious affairs at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, was also exempt, as he started his transition in early 2016. Still, though he was already presenting as male before heading to basic training, he was forced to live in the closet for a brief period of time once he arrived, having to go back to presenting as female. “It was difficult and stressful,” he recalls, “although some of the people I opened up to were super supportive.”
Now father to a 2-year-old, Crutcher says the overturning of the ban “opens a lot more doors,” career-wise, noting that while being exempt allowed him to move forward with his transition, being labeled trans in the system made it more difficult to get approval for re-trainings and promotions that were easily “open to everyone else.”
He stuck with it, though, despite having to remain in the closet, because he had previously met some out transgender military members who inspired him. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ helped grow that fire inside of me,” he says. “I wanted to join and help this fight for equality, and show that we are more than capable of doing what anyone else can do.”
One of those longtime trans service members is Allyn Cropper, stationed in Fort Eustis, Va., where he works in the HR department. He’s served for 12 years, and began his transition — privately, without military support — within the first year or so of his service.
“I don’t think I understood exactly what I was doing and how groundbreaking [it] was, but it was something I needed to do for me, and I didn’t think it would be a problem with me serving,” Cropper, 34, recalls. And although he’s been long presenting as male, his military gender marker did not reflect that until about a year ago (he was married and living off-post) which caused practical issues while at work.
“I would have to use the women’s bathroom,” Cropper says. “That was a big problem for me, and sometimes I would hold it until lunch, or I would wait until after work, and I wouldn’t drink a lot of fluids. It just became customary to have to wait. … Everyone recognized me as male, and it was just embarrassing.”
Zane Alvarez, a behavioral health technician stationed in Germany who first spoke with Yahoo Life about the ban back in 2018, found himself in a similar spot for a while — as he had begun his transition, thus achieving exempt status, but had yet to receive his gender marker change. For a while, that left him sleeping in the women’s barracks and using the women’s bathrooms. “I’m relieved now more than anything,” he says. “I’ve been serving for over eight years, but started medically transitioning in early 2016, so this has been a five-year journey of watching a rollercoaster of changes. … This gives me peace of mind.”
Cropper recalls the weight of Trump’s 2017 tweet coming down as he was still navigating the bathroom issues. “It felt smothering, honestly. I had already been transitioned for years before the Obama administration wrote in accommodations for trans people, so I had to come out,” often for the first time, he explains. “My command knew, but they respected my privacy, so it was kind of like this unspoken thing.”
Those he opened up to, however, were kind, he says, noting, “My battle buddies have been my biggest support system throughout this whole process, next to my mom and my sister.” The lifting of the ban, he says, “just allows me to serve my country with pride, and not have to worry about what’s coming next or who might discriminate.”
For Corcoran, who is a local SPARTA advocate, Monday’s announcement means that, as a leader, she can “finally move to a sense of normalcy, pointing all the soldiers in the right direction … and allowing them to go forward and do great things,” she says. “The only fight now is just trying to improve upon the policy that exists from 2016 and create a new one.” That means, for starters, working to streamline the transition policy, which is currently more difficult than it needs to be, she says. But knowing firsthand how important the issue is, says Corcoran, who is also an elite athlete, keeps her going.
“I want to push myself to the limit, because the enemy with no face I may be presented with on the battlefield is training just as hard,” she says, noting that with “the dysphoria gone,” she’s been able to achieve more than ever before — deadlifting a new record and running three ultramarathons and a half Ironman in 2020 alone.
“To me, being an infantryman is being an elite athlete… otherwise I’m failing my soldiers going forward,” she says. “I definitely have that conviction now — and I can thank my transition for that.”
Read more from Yahoo Life:
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.