Essay by Teagan Gilbert.The views expressed are the opinions of the author.
My name is Information Systems Technician Petty Officer First Class Teagan Gilbert. I have served for the past 13 years in the U.S. Navy, but President Trump’s transgender military ban is threatening to end my career and destroy my family’s proud legacy of military service.
My grandfather was an Army staff officer for General Douglas MacArthur in postwar Japan, and my own father served as an aircraft mechanic in the newly minted Air Force between the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Their stories inspired me to join the Navy in September 2004, and not long after, I left my family for the 7th fleet. Serving in the amphibious forces out of Sasebo, Japan, was meant to be the beginning of a covenant between myself and the military. I would give my years and possibly my life to my country, and in return, the Navy would forge me anew into a leader and a professional.
At least, that’s what I had hoped for. Now, in light of a new push from President Trump, my career, and the careers of hundreds of other dedicated members of the armed forces, are in imminent danger, for no other reason than our gender.
When the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, I was initially unsure how the repeal was going to be received. I was now serving in a new unit, with Commander Rick Sarmento, an openly gay executive officer. But it turned out I was the only one in my unit who was shocked — not that he was gay, but that no one cared. He was an exceptional leader, who made us aware of the strategic importance of our tasks.
In retrospect, I should have given my brothers and sisters in arms more credit: We’re a pretty resilient group. In my years of service, I’ve driven through the streets of Kabul and worked with our international partners from the watch floor in Pearl Harbor. Five years overseas, a marriage, a child, a divorce, a deployment to Afghanistan, and through it all, the Navy was home, my place of learning and my vocation. It never faltered. These days, I spend my time training new sailors on satellite and information systems. Like all of those that who came before me, I cherish the words of the Sailor’s Creed, “I proudly serve my country’s Navy combat team with honor, courage and commitment.”
It makes sense, in other words, that DADT’s repeal did not weaken morale or risk our mission readiness, but rather allowed us to improve our work together. The only thing we lost were outdated prejudices. It allowed strong leaders like Commander Sarmento to live his life openly and honestly, and it showed me that the Navy can learn from its mistakes. A pioneer in my field (and hero of mine), Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, once said, “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’” I take that maxim to mean that we should overcome our fears and look to renew ourselves and our institutions, clearing out the obsolete and self-defeating, lest stagnation and ignorance destroy us.
But despite our success with DADT, the military still, at the time, enforced a ban on openly transgender members serving. And though I knew that, on top of everything else, this was going to have to be a choice between my service and my life, in 2015, after a particularly difficult deployment to Afghanistan, I decided to stop fighting myself and my own self-defeating behaviors. I faced my fears and talked to a doctor about something that was in my soul from the beginning. I was going to accept that I was a woman and that I needed to transition, or else face a lifetime of depression and self-loathing.
I was anxious and uncertain about how my decision would affect my service. But then, as if in response to a prayer, the Department of Defense rescinded the ban on transgender service, allowing openly transgender people to serve. I no longer faced a terrible choice. I could serve my country andbe true to myself.
I was renewed.
I worked hard to get orders to my dream job in a unit that specialized in satellite operations. My mind was clearer, I sought out mentors to better improve my leadership skills and worked to became the head of a division. For a year, I was whole and unashamedly pursuing my personal and professional happiness. The Navy was going to accept me for who I was. I would finish my sciences degree, become an officer, join the space cadre. For the first time in my life, the possibilities truly felt endless.
But the day that I saw the tweet from Trump invalidating my lifelong career broke my heart and my dreams. The ban, Trump claimed, would be reinstated. All my work, and my 13 years of faithful service, would come to nothing.
I am not alone. There are hundreds of stories like this in our armed forces. Many careers and lives have been dedicated to that contract between soldier, sailor, airman, marine and their country. Though we have served faithfully, and stood by our commitments, we have all an ax over our necks.
But, even though my dreams and hopes are in danger, I refuse to turn my back on my country. I will continue to serve until that ax drops, or I am given a reprieve. I can only hope that Congress and the courts will act once again to grant transgender service members the dignity to continue to fight with honor, courage and commitment.
Teagan Gilbert, 31, is a US Sailor, geology student, and veteran of the war in Afghanistan.