The Supreme Court allowed President Trump’s ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military to go into effect Tuesday morning, ostracizing thousands of active service members and sparking another divisive controversy in American politics.
There are an estimated 150,000 transgender United States veterans, according to a UCLA Williams Institute report, many of whom were forced to closet both their sexuality and gender identity or face threat of being discharged from the U.S. military during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy era.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rolling Stone spoke with Evan Young, a retired army officer who was one of the thousands of transgender veterans who had to hide their identity and sexuality in order to still serve in the military – even once facing an investigation for being a lesbian prior to transitioning. “It was so hard,” Young says. The 14-year military veteran, who’s now the president of the Transgender American Veterans Association after retiring from service in 2013, spoke over the phone about his reaction to the court’s decision to allow the ban to go into effect, the impact serving in the military while closeting your identity has on both units and individuals and what this ruling means for the future of the U.S. military and the LGBTQ community nationwide.
What was your initial response to the Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday morning?
Furious. This was an issue that Trump made. [Barack] Obama opened service for transgender military members and they’ve been serving for two years now with no issues. We’re currently deployed in every single combat zone that’s out there. We serve with honor and we’re patriotic. We give our lives for this country, yet they’re saying we can’t serve and it’s beyond my comprehension why, besides discrimination.
What does this mean for the LGBTQ community to be told their service is not wanted by the president and by the Supreme Court?
It’s devastating, because we have good men and women who want to serve their country and are not allowed to. We have skills that the government has invested so much money and training folks for whatever job they had – whether it’s a pilot or a public affairs officer, a medical officer – there are so many jobs that we serve in and that’s a lot of people that you lose.
Your career spanned throughout the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. If you openly served as a transgender soldier, what would have happened?
It would’ve been an administrative discharge. I would’ve been released from active duty and not received any benefits. If I had somebody that was biased and they wanted to discriminate, they could’ve given me a discharge that was other than honorable, which would’ve hurt me getting VA [Veteran Affairs] benefits and finding another job on the outside. Prior to me [retiring] and prior to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” getting lifted, all the LGBT community that was serving: If you got kicked out, you ran the risk of losing everything.
In 1993, you were once investigated after someone reported you for being a lesbian. What did that experience do to your morale about being in the military at the time?
It was awful. I remember that time and it was really bad. All my LGBT friends completely cut ties with me. I was stationed in Germany at the time and I didn’t have family there and all my friends were not talking with me, so it was a very tough time. And I didn’t want to be around anybody either and get anyone in trouble or anything. It did make me want to leave (the military), but I loved serving my country and I wanted to stay.
What’s it like knowing you put yourself into dangerous situations for your country, and then the president says that your gender identity is a “disruption” and throws off “unit cohesion”?
I’d have to disagree. I think serving openly — either if you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender — is more of a unit… it brings people together. When you have people hiding in the closet, it [creates] separation. Before 2011, I had not transitioned and I was serving as a lesbian. For most of my career, I served in the closet and it was so hard. If I had a family event to go to, I couldn’t bring my partner, so a lot of times I would just not go. Just being there for unit functions and the other families are there and you’re not there, or you go alone, it isolates you. Not being able to be open about who you are and being able to build trust. If you don’t have that trust, it hurts the entire unit. We’re a diverse society in America. We’re a melting pot. Everybody’s different and we have to learn to accept one another.
One of the main points the Trump Administration has made is that transition-related health care costs would be “too expensive.” There was a RAND study that showed health care costs for transgender military members would rise from about $2.4 to $8.4 million in the first year, though it still noted those costs were “relatively low.”
Right. That’s an insignificant number. If you compare it with the use of Viagra for men in the military, it just pales in comparison to what they pay for that. We joined and we signed a contract that we would defend the Constitution and we would give our lives if needed. And in return, the government is supposed to take care of us, medically. If we fulfill our part of the bargain, they need to fulfill theirs. And transitioning is medically necessary. The American Medical Association has even said so.
If you’re a young person now that’s looking to join the military, but is also aware that you want to transition, do you see yourself signing up?
If you really want to transition, then I would say probably not join. If you think that you can deal with not transitioning and you still want to join, then people will join regardless. Through the ages, since we started fighting with a military, we’ve had transgender people serve. It won’t stop transgender people from serving at all. We will continue to serve with honor, however the problems will still be there with having to hide who you are.
Where do you see the future heading for transgender individuals in the United States?
If the current administration stays on course, they are looking to erase transgender people – not just in the military, but across the board. You can see that in various policy moves that he’s made with the Department of Housing, where they’ve taken out the language for transgender people, and we see it now with the military. There’s just so many ways they are trying to erase us.
What message does this ban send to the LGBTQ community nationwide?
That we need to keep our defenses up and keep fighting. 2020 is coming up pretty quick and the results from the midterms gives me hope that people will do the right thing and vote for equality and not division.