Anita Rao 00:00
In the fall of 2019, I was a budding journalist living in New York City. I had an internship with the oral history project StoryCorps, which documents American history through personal stories. I spent each morning with my headphones on listening to everyday people from around the country talk about some of the most intimate moments of their lives. It was that very same year that Barack Obama officially signed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Over the course of the next three years, I listened to interview after interview of service members and veterans talking about their life under that policy. I remember the story of a gay, Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and talks about being debilitated by the fear of being outed. Then there was a conversation between some active service members who poured their enthusiasm into the microphone, talking about celebrating their love publicly for the very first time. Four years later, I was working as a radio producer in North Carolina when the military opened all combat positions to women. And I naively thought that my professional career in journalism was going to be marked by institutions slowly but surely catching up to the pace of changing cultural norms. But as I've learned over and over — that story, and that idea of a clean linear narrative, is much too simple. The American military — like all institutions built and shaped mostly by those who have held the most power— is subject to change course, and fail to protect the rights of those on the margins. And that is exactly what has happened over the past four years for trans servicemembers. They were told in 2016 that they could serve openly and then one year later notified of a policy change over Twitter. Now, change is likely on the horizon again. This is Embodied I'm Anita Rao. For decades, being openly transgender, while serving in the military was grounds for discharge. That was the case when Lieutenant Colonel Bree Fram joined the Air Force as an officer. Bree is now the highest ranking out transgender officer in the Department of Defense.
Bree Fram 02:23
The Department of Defense is the largest employer of trans people in the world. And that's amazing to think about. And trans people based on historical data serve at twice the rate of their non trans peers. So the military definitely offers something for us and we had something to contribute to it.
Anita Rao 02:42
Bree was on the job the day Obama's Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted the ban for trans servicemembers in 2016.
Bree Fram 02:50
Yeah, that was an incredible day, because not only was I excited for the prospect of open service for so many people that I knew and cared about — and their chance to be who they were. It was also the day I came out as trans. Because for so long, I had been living a life where the merest hint of who I actually was could cost me my career for something that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my ability to serve. So it was a nerve wracking moment. But it was incredibly exciting to come out to my coworkers, to come out to friends and family, and to face all of that emotion on one day. Yeah, you can say that one will never be leaving my memory.
Anita Rao 03:38
Bree's timing wasn't just luck. Like any well trained military official, intel informed her choices.
Bree Fram 03:46
I had a little advance warning that it was coming from my work with SPART*A. We had done a lot of the run up work to get people in front of senior leaders in the Pentagon to make sure they understood that this policy change was feasible. It's possible we weren't this set of bogeymen that was going to come and ruin the military. So, we had an inkling it was coming. And we thought it would be in pride month, right at the end of the Obama administration. So I had both a letter to colleagues and a Facebook post to my friends and family ready to go when the secretary of defense started speaking to announce the end of the ban. When he wrapped up, I hesitated, but I hit post. I hit send. And then I ran away to the bowels of the Pentagon, found the gym, and I like to say I went nowhere faster than I'd ever gone before and probably burned the motor out on one of the elliptical machines down there. But when I got back to my office, the reception was incredible. One by one my colleagues, senior officers in the military, walked over to, me shook my hand and said: It's an honor to serve with you. I was floored, because it was the reverse. It was my honor to serve with them. And on Facebook: Nothing but love. So talk about an amazing experience that speaks against the argument that we're a disruption to unit cohesion. Just that said everything about my experience coming out as trans in the military
Anita Rao 05:13
Bree mentioned SPART*A, and that is an organization that you should know about. SPART*A supports actively serving transgender service members, veterans and their families. Bree is the vice president. And SPART*A has a finger on the pulse of people in the trans community who want to serve but are impacted by policies in place that prevent that. SPART*A calls them "future warriors" and one of them is Kaycen Bradley of California.
Kaycen Bradley 05:39
Ever since I was little, I'd always say I was going to be in the Army. I talked to my recruiter, and I told her: You know, hey, I am planning on medically transitioning. What is the policy on this? She told me I wouldn't be able to transition if I wanted to serve. So I actually stopped looking into joining the military, because it actually meant more to me to be able to genuinely live as my true self than to be struggling while in the military. So I switched to the Marines. I spoke to a recruiter. He's like: No, we can do it. We can get the paperwork. It's a process, but we're down to, you know, ride out the process with you. And I was like, okay, that gives me hope.
Anita Rao 06:33
Hope is something many in the trans community are putting in a new presidential administration. President-Elect Joe Biden has already pledged to restore rights to trans Americans who want to serve once he takes office. The current policy under President Donald Trump is effectively a ban. Trump laid it out in a pair of tweets in 2017, in which he called trans troops a burden and a disruption. But no intel reached Lieutenant Colonel Bree Fram that time.
Bree Fram 07:02
I had no idea on this one. So talk about a shock. You showed the tweets that the President issued that morning, and for a lot of us, it was interesting, because he paused about nine minutes between the first and second tweet. And we thought we were going to war with North Korea. We were like: Is this the next big one? But no, he was just banning transgender service members in the claim that we're a burden on the military. And I happened to be on my very last day of leave in northern Minnesota overlooking this placid lake. And my phone just started blowing up and [I was] trying to figure out what was going on. And then I finally find these tweets. [I thought]: Where did this come from? And I knew that was going to be another life-changing day immediately, because first, we had our membership, our 1000 people in SPART*A that are wondering: Am I gonna have a job tomorrow? Am I losing my career today? So we had to do a lot of reassurance that day that: No, you need to go to work. You need to lace up your boots, and you need to continue accomplishing the mission and proving that you belong until they force you out kicking and screaming. And now on the other hand, many of us had to talk to the media that day, because they knew we existed. They found us, and trans people were all over the media — trans members of the military on national news. And it was like this spotlight was shining on us from the President that ended up doing more good than anything, because you saw what these people were doing. What they're capable of, and just how awesome they were at serving their nation.
Anita Rao 08:38
Advocacy groups took the matter to court. And for a while Trump's tweets-turned-policy resulted in little more than confusion. But in January 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the Department of Defense to move ahead with the new rules. And they went into effect to that April. But if you ask Pentagon officials, they'll tell you: This isn't a ban on trans servicemembers. After all, Bree is trans and in the military. So what is this policy, exactly?
Bree Fram 09:07
So what they're trying to hang their hat on is the difference between being able to say: I'm trans, and being able to transition. Right now DOD says: You can come out. You can say I'm trans, but that's it. We in fact have been singled out for special circumstances, not the equal treatment that we're looking for, because the DOD has a compact with its service members where if you require medical treatment to get you back to the battlefield, we are going to get you that medical treatment. But we've singled out this piece that we're calling "gender dysphoria and associated treatment," and saying: No, you can't be treated for that. You can't get what you need to become a better soldier, sailor, airman, marine or space professional ... or coastguardsmen and still continue to serve. So they've carved out a special status to treat people differently, and it applies in many ways to actually becoming a functional ban where some of our enlisted folks, they can't get commissioned, because they've had a code put on their record. That the commissioning source says: Ooh, can't take people like you. Even though again, it has nothing to do with their capacity to succeed in the program. So call it a ban or not, it is preventing medical care that is deemed necessary by a doctor. It's preventing people from moving forward in their career. And it's preventing people who want to serve their country and are capable of doing so from joining. So functionally, it is absolutely a ban.
Anita Rao 10:52
What that breaks down to is new trans recruits are largely barred from the military, unless they serve in the sex they were assigned at birth. And that leaves so many trans people caught in the crosshairs of policy changes. They're forced to make an impossible decision just to show up at work.
Bree Fram 11:11
I like to frame it that if you're in the closet, and you have to hide a piece of yourself, you are expending mental energy to protect yourself and to protect your identity. And if you could instead spend that on accomplishing the mission, how much better can you be? And it was the same way for me. I transitioned while a squadron commander in a leadership position in the military, nd the experience made me better. It made me more able to connect, more able to take different perceptions. I could lead. I could drive the mission, and we can get things done. And having more people with that opportunity can only be a good thing for our military's readiness and our ability to fight and win wars in the future.
Anita Rao 11:57
In theory, you can transition, be a new recruit or continue military service by being granted a waiver with a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, that's psychological distress that some people experience when their gender identity doesn't match the sex they were assigned at birth. But that is not even an option that's readily available. Jody Davis is a health professional in Ohio with previous military experience. And for the last three years, Jodi has been trying to join the Army as an officer.
Jody Davis 12:29
I'm actually a registered nurse and a licensed social worker as well. I think I'm doing pretty well. I'm pretty happy with where I am in life, but I would like to be able to rejoin the military. I think it would be a great challenge to work with people coming out, people getting reintegrated into society. That's a really fragile time, and I think I'm qualified and experienced. And I think I would add some value. The waiver necessary for me to serve as a female — the waivers have not been approved. They've been held up. The administration isn't very amenable to these. And we're hoping things will change with the new administration that there'll be a renewed openness to trans service.
Bree Fram 13:21
It was a really difficult decision, because one of the criteria of a gender dysphoria diagnosis is that you experience "clinically significant distress."
Anita Rao 13:32
Bree Fram made the choice to seek medical consultation for gender dysphoria .
Bree Fram 13:37
And so I fought thinking even about getting that diagnosis, because I never felt that. That to me singles me out as being broken in some way. And that is not who I am. I am not this fragile thing you put on the shelf. I am ready and capable to serve. So to get that on my record felt like it hurt. So I came to this cruciable moment with a month to go when the Supreme Court said: You can have this policy. And DOD said: Okay, here it is. Anyone who doesn't get this before April, your future path is closed. So I had to, you know, look deep inside myself and say: Is now the time? Do I just need to take it and get that diagnosis to enable myself to receive the medical care required to be my best self? And I had to say yes. But it hurts me to this day to have that on my record as merely a gatekeeping function. When that diagnosis says "clinically significant distress." So we're hopeful that in the future that criteria gets changed. And I think the psychological community is moving in that direction, but we need to get there because it truly is just that: Are you trans? Yeah, you are. You don't have to be suffering to be who you are and be your best.
Samson Gibbs 15:14
The majority of the people that I've experienced, at least, are outstandingly supportive and want nothing but the best.
Anita Rao 15:23
That's Marine Sergeant Samson Gibbs stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Samson Gibbs 15:29
Their main focus is: Can you do your job? If you can do your job, be yourself. They support you. And I think that's kind of what a lot of people are missing when it comes to the policy is that nine out of 10 of us don't really care what you do in your off time — who you are — we support you as long as you can do your job and get the mission accomplished.
Anita Rao 15:47
Sam is on point. In a 2020 study, the Defense Department found that two thirds of active duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines support serving alongside transgender personnel in the military. As for us civilians, a Gallup poll in 2019, found that nearly 84% of American adults aged 18 to 29 support allowing transgender troops to serve. Like Bree Fram, Sergeant Samson Gibbs is part of the community at SPART*A, serving as the organization's Marine Corps chapter leader. And like Bree, Sam also came out as trans on the day the Obama administration lifted the ban.
Samson Gibbs 16:27
Well, I was a young lance corporal, a little E-3 running around in the motor pool as a mechanic that day. So I hadn't even any clue that any of this was going to happen. And so I'm out there wrenching away doing my thing. And one of my friends came over to me, and he tapped me on the shoulder, and he's like: Hey, Sam, I want to talk to you. Can you come to the side for a minute? I was like, yeah, you know, what's going on? And so he pulls me to the side, he gets me where nobody else can hear me. And he hands me his phone, he says: This is open to a link. I think you need to go and watch this. I think it's gonna be something really good for you. And so I was, you know, really caught off guard. And I wasn't sure really what was going on. And so I really confusingly looked at his phone and kind of stood there for a minute. And as I'm watching the closed captions across the bottom of the screen, as the secretary of defense was speaking, you know, I just was flooded with this excitement and relief and was just so happy in that moment. And I just looked at him, and I had this smile on my face. And I was like: How did you know? He said: You are uniquely yourself. Being who you are doesn't change anything. We all know who you are. We were just waiting for you to tell us. And so immediately following that, we went back inside together. And I pulled my platoon together. And I said: Hey, I've got to tell you guys something. This is what just happened. I'm trans. And everybody kind of like paused for a second, like, is this really happening? What? Are you serious right now? And I was like, I'm absolutely serious. And you know, they just had this press conference. This is what happened. And I need you guys to know that this is who I am, because I'm not ashamed of who I am. And it doesn't change anything about me other than you finally get to see me as I see myself,
Anita Rao 18:24
I asked Sam what it has meant to be out and trans as an active duty Marine.
Samson Gibbs 18:29
Well, a lot of it was, you know, just everyday life of just existing and going to work and being normal and just being a Marine, which I'm eternally grateful for. You know, that my chain of command, and the people that I worked with, didn't go out of their way to make me some kind of weird, awkward, you know, thing that you set on this pedestal because all of a sudden, it's fragile. Instead, they were: Hey, you know, you're just Sam. No big deal. You know, you're just another Marine. Let's go to work. And so I had that great opportunity to just experience being a young Marine doing his job, while also having the opportunity to be respected as who I am when I thought that that was something that was never possible. And so moving forward, it was a lot of, you know, uncertainty and figuring out how we were going to make everything work and how — what exactly does this policy mean? And what questions do we have? And finding the right people to call and ask questions to, to make sure that we were going in the right direction. And I think that's all anybody could have asked for.
Anita Rao 19:30
And I asked him if serving while the current policy is in place has ever made him think about leaving,
Samson Gibbs 19:35
You know, I think everybody has bad days and good days, you know. So on the bad days, you think: What am I really doing here? But then you have more good days than you do bad days, right? And so, it would be naive of me to say, you know, I didn't have a day where I felt just let down and disappointed, you know, but overall, and which is the majority of me, and so I'm going to say that this is my official answer, you know. It's that: I don't want to leave. I don't think about leaving. I think about staying to make this a better place, not just for myself, but for everyone that comes behind me. You know, it's not about me, it's about the Marines. It's about the service members that I serve with, you know. It's about the American people. It's not about me.
Marcus LoScalzo 20:32
My name is Marcus Loscalzo. I am 30 years old, and I live in New York. My current career field is I work in the film industry, I'm a special effects technician. And I feel this industry right now is very self indulgent. Having some kind of balance or being part of the military reserve branches, such as the National Guard or the Navy reserves would really give me like: Okay, I can take these jobs now. And then I still have my military service to give me that inner sense that, you know, that I'm also doing something important. I would rather be helping fight forest fires or, you know, working on a boat, working on a ship, helping the country, helping the community, also paving the way for trans people in the future. Like, this is a really big milestone that's gonna change a lot of lives. And there's always going to be a lot of people after me who want to come forward and want to do this kind of work. And the group now that wants to go in will definitely help make things easier for them in the future. I want to be a part of that.
Bree Fram 21:53
The thing that I want most from anyone is what's up here. And if that brain happens to be in a trans body, I want them serving next to me, because that's the brain that might revolutionize cyber warfare. That's the brain that might revolutionize the way we fight in space, or utilize AI and new robotic wingmen. Those are the people that we need in our service. If they are capable, I want them. And so to those people out there that might be thinking about joining the military: Join us. We can make it a better place. We can make the country better and the military stronger all at the same time.
Anita Rao 22:43
Thanks to Lieutenant Colonel Bree Fram, Marine Sergeant Sampson Gibbs and SPART*A for sharing the stories of current and future warriors with us. The voices you heard today were part of an event in partnership with the American Homefront Project called "Uneven Battlefield." You can watch Bree, Sam and several other expert guests talk about barriers to equity in today's armed services. Find the link at wunc.org/embodied. If this is your first time listening to the show, thank you. We are so glad that you found us. Our entire first season is available along with some very special bonus episodes like this one, and an amazing illustrated discussion guide. It encourages you to keep thinking and talking about the topics that we've covered on the podcast so far. We have so many exciting treats waiting for you at wunc.org/embodied. This show is made possible in part by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup:weaverstreetmarket.coop. Eembodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC. Thanks also to Elizabeth Friend for her production help with today's episode and to sound engineers Jenni Lawson and Al Wodarski. Lindsay Foster Thomas is WUNC's director of content. I'm Anita Rao, on an exploration of our bodies, our brains and taking on the taboo with you.