For Mac McEachin, the Pentagon’s delay in allowing transgender people to enlist in the U.S. armed forces represents a major setback for his plan to join the Army’s Officer Candidate School.
“The fact that that’s now been pushed back to at least six months is pretty disheartening,” McEachin said. “It throws a lot of questions in the air.”
McEachin, a 27-year-old transgender male living in New York City who’s planning to move to Texas by month’s end, enlisted in the Army Reserves in 2011 and hoped to become an officer after finishing his master’s thesis in counter-insurgency last year at the London School of Economics.
That plan — and the plans of many transgender people like McEachin — is thrown into disarray after Defense Secretary James Mattis, responding to objections from members of Congress and concerns from military service chiefs, agreed to halt a plan established in the Obama administration to allow transgender people to accede into the military starting July 1, 2017.
Following a year-long review, former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last year lifted the medical regulation barring openly transgender people from serving in the military. As a result, transgender people already serving in the armed forces could come out without fear of discharge, but new transgender enlistees wouldn’t be able to join the military until a later time.
In a memo announcing the Trump administration’s new delay until Jan. 1, Mattis said the Pentagon would use the additional six months to “evaluate more carefully” the impact of transgender accession. The delay, Mattis wrote, in “no way presupposes the outcome of review,” nor does it change policies already in place with regard to transgender people currently in the military.
McEachin said he planed to submit his packet for accession into Army Officer Candidate School on the initial July 1 target date and telecommute under his temporary job until it ends Jan. 1. But the Pentagon’s six-month delay means he’ll be out of a job on Jan. 1 without any assurances of employment.
Although McEachin still plans to apply to Army Officer Candidate School at that time, he has concerns that continued delays would prevent him from serving in the armed forces.
“I’m 27-turning-28,” McEachin said. “That’s not old, but it is old for becoming an officer. Most of my peers when I become a lieutenant will be 21, 22. So there’s also that concern of starting to age out of certain opportunities and having that great of difference between myself and the other folks that I’m serving with. It throws a lot of things up into the air.”
McEachin said being an officer is “honestly the first and only job I ever wanted,” recalling at age 6 getting from his parents a glossy tabletop book from the Virginia Military Institute that he said attracted him to the pomp-and-circumstance of military service.
“I love the Army and I love soldiers and I’d love to have the opportunity to lead at that level, potentially to affect policy at a higher level later on in my career,” McEachin said. “It’s pretty much the only thing that I want to do.”
McEachin’s story is one of several from transgender people seeking to enlist in the armed forces by July 1 whose plans were thrown into question after the Pentagon announced its delay.
Logan Downs, a 22-year-old transgender male living in Vancouver, Wash., said he was “definitely ready” to enlist in the Air Force on the July 1 target date and was “pretty sad” after finding out about the delay.
“I definitely feel a call to serve,” Downs said. “I think that every able-bodied citizen should serve at least a little bit. I think it definitely teaches you a lot of good values and the discipline, and everything like that just kind of fits right along with my life, and I definitely respond really well to the military lifestyle.”
Downs said he enlisted in the Army previously right after high school, but injured his knees and had to leave military service. In the aftermath of transitioning about a year later, Downs said he’s “pretty eager to get back into the military.”
Despite the Mattis memo indicating his upcoming review has no preordained outcome, Downs said he’s confident the Pentagon will allow him to enlist after an additional six months.
“I believe they want to integrate us, they just need a few more months to finish some things up,” Downs said. “Also I just have to keep faith that it will only be six months and not longer because having a positive attitude is the way I live my life.”
Brynn Tannehill, a transgender Navy pilot who recently tenured out of the Reserves and fought as an activist to lift the ban under the Obama administration, said the six-month delay significantly disrupts her plans to re-enlist in the armed forces.
“I’m frustrated with the foot dragging; this isn’t rocket science,” Tannehill said. “Eighteen other countries have figured this out already. I did everything I could to make accessing back into the Navy as easy as possible for the system to handle for half a decade. I poured my life and my finances into making a policy happen. In the end, I’m walking away with nothing to show for it personally other than a sense that my efforts helped other people.”
Tannehill said she’s still evaluating her options in the aftermath of the delay, but one of them is moving to Canada to “enjoy living in a country with laws protecting LGBT people and a more robust health care system and social safety net.”
Gemma “Freddie” Robinson, a 47-year-old transgender woman living in Boulder, Colo., had served in the Air Force as a male in security forces between 1988 and 1998, but after having discontinued service to explore her gender identity, started to think about about re-enlisting in 2014 after speaking with a recruiter.
“The wheels started to turn, and the reality is there’s some unfinished business there,” Robinson said. “I didn’t leave because I didn’t like serving. I really loved serving, so I decided I would follow the developments and be ready to return when the policy changed.”
After being told initially she’d have to wait until July 1 for enlistment, Robinson said she was “pretty disappointed” when the Trump administration announced the delay.
Robinson said she can still enlist at age 47 — and wants to do so to become a role model for younger transgender people — because of her previous service and number of years before her expected retirement, but the clock is running out.
“That could slip away pretty quickly, and I don’t know again the calculation, but if another year or two went by I would probably be ineligible to return,” Robinson said.
In the meantime, Robinson said she’d speak to the recruiter again to see if there’s any flexibility in allowing her to re-enlist at this time, but still pursue accession when December rolls around.
Meanwhile, anti-trans groups are busy pushing to make the delay on transgender enlistment permanent.
After railing against transgender military service in committee, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) has proposed an amendment to major defense policy legislation that would bar the U.S. military from paying for transition-related care, such as hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. It was unknown by Blade deadline whether the House Rules Committee would accept the amendment.
Last week, the anti-LGBT Family Research Council sent out an email urging supporters to back Hartzler’s amendment and reverse “Obama’s military transgender mandate.” The amendment, the email says, would “roll back the requirement that the military recruit people who identify as transgender,” which seems broader than the actual amendment.
“Taxpayer dollars also need to be protected from funding sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy efforts intended to change a person’s gender,” the email says. “Estimates for these efforts, including the amount of time lost for the transition process, are about $3.7 billion over the next ten years. This is not a good use of taxpayer funds.”
The Family Research Council estimate for the cost of gender reassignment surgery seems widely off from research (and even more than the cost Hartzler cited in committee of $1.35 billion over the next 10 years). The RAND Corp. estimated those surgeries would consume between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually out of the Pentagon’s multi-billion dollar budget.
Aaron Belkin, director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, raised the alarm in a statement this week about efforts from anti-LGBT groups, calling them “a full-scale effort to inflame the culture wars on the backs of loyal transgender troops.”
“This is a coordinated campaign to reinstate ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for transgender troops,” Belkin said. “It is striking that the old guard didn’t seem to learn anything from the failure of the first ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
At a time when efforts to allow transgender people to serve openly in the armed forces seem in jeopardy, the efforts from LGBT groups seem more muted in comparison to massive campaigns launched in the early years of the Obama administration to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and ensure openly gay people can serve in the military.
Stephen Peters, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, pointed to a video on transgender service the organization produced on June 30, 2016, when asked about initiatives to ensure transgender people can serve in the armed forces.
“We’ve made incredible progress, and we refuse to turn back now,” Peters said. “Today, the military no longer discharges highly trained and talented service members just because of their gender identity. HRC has been proud to work alongside coalition partners in getting to where we are today with thousands of transgender service members who openly and proudly serve our nation, proving that what matters is their ability to accomplish the mission — not their gender identity.”
In the meantime, transgender people like McEachin continue to explore options to accede to the positions they seek in the U.S. military as their nation places before them continued bans and delays in allowing them to serve in the armed forces.
McEachin, who’s getting married in October, said under the rules he may be able to join officer’s school for the Navy — just not for the Army.
“If that turns out to be the case, then I’ll absolutely jump on that opportunity because I’m sure I’d love sailors as much as I love soldiers,” McEachin said. “But, yes, it’s pretty much just a waiting game and trying to get figure out what is going on essentially.”