It has now been one month since President Trump took to Twitter to announce an unexpected ban on transgendered service members from serving in the United States military. Since that time, officials at the Department of Defense had been operating in a vacuum, directing all questions concerning the policy back at the White House, who had yet to issue any definitive guidance with regard to the President’s Tweets, until last Friday.
The White House released a memo outlining a new policy on transgendered service members, barring transgendered individuals from joining the military outright, but leaving open the fate of currently serving transgendered troops to decisions further down the road.
Where does that leave the trans soldiers who have been marking time in our military formations, waiting on word if they’ll be allowed to stay?
Captain El Cook graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2013, a place the former enlisted soldier never imagined he would find himself at. After spending a few listless years at a civilian college, El was racking up debt but didn’t seem to have any direction. Worried about his future, he opted to enlist in the Army.
I originally went on some scholarships, being young and dumb, I did not get those scholarships renewed. I was working and struggling, and a friend of mine said we should join the Army. I was like, we should, because I need to pay these bills and pay for school.”
After three years in the Army, to include a year-long deployment to the Middle East as a signals and commo soldier, El was offered an appointment to West Point. But he didn’t imagine being an officer at first. “I had a commander who was god awful. I felt like all of us were smarter than this guy… this guy is horrible.” After getting a letter about the academy explaining what it offered, El’s NCO insisted he should apply. After consulting his father, who said he would do exactly what the letter said, El says it was “the best decision I never made.”
Normally, enlisted soldiers are required to attend West Point’s prep school and spend an entire year refreshing on subjects like calculus and English composition, given that most soldiers at this point in their career have spent years away from a classroom. For El, he was admitted straight in, starting classes in 2009, well before the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and before El had concluded that he was trans.
“You’ll hear a lot of us say that for a very long time we knew we were different, but I didn’t know that’s what it was. I didn’t have the language for it.” Growing up, El had asked his mother about why he felt like a boy. “She told me to shut up” His sister teased him, saying he had been switched at birth. Knowing the subject upset his family, El shelved the topic for the rest of his childhood.
Living as a woman for the first few years as a cadet, it wasn’t until the end of his second year, after being exposed to West Point’s heavy academic environment that enabled him to explore ideas and think critically, as well as being exposed to LGBT groups at the Academy, that El’s ideas about his gender began to solidify. It all came to a head when a combat survival swimming course brought on an unexpected combination of depression and anxiety, and El was directed to see a psychiatrist for help.
So I go to this doctor to see about fixing my anxiety for swimming, and after one particularly bad day of swimming, I go and just tell him. I hadn’t discussed it with anyone before. I just told him: here’s what’s more stressful, I’m trans. I don’t want to die this unhappy, I don’t want to die suffering in this body. I’m miserable, and I pretend every day that I’m this person that I’m not, and that I don’t want to be, and I’m fucking miserable.” The doctor asked how long he had been holding that in. “I don’t know, my whole life.” It was a moment of clarity that “came out of nowhere,” El says.
But even with the progress being made at the time to allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly, trans soldiers were going to have to wait. El says a sort of depression took hold around the time of the repeal of DADT “We’re finally going to get to be ourselves, I’m super excited. And it was like, just kidding, just the L G B …not the T.” Despite the major breakthrough of acknowledging he was trans, then-Cadet Cook was going to have to continue serving as a woman, something that was somewhat devastating, but was not a show stopper. El says he was so busy with cadet life, that his transition wasn’t something he had time to navigate. But the depression lingered.
El began transitioning while still at West Point with the help of some civilian healthcare professionals and West Point alumni, who connected him to a network of other trans service members who were continuing to serve while concealing that aspect of their identity. Given that trans soldiers technically were banned from serving in the military at the time, there were multiple instances during El’s transition where he could have been exposed, such as during his commissioning physical just before graduation. The doctor administering the physical, a civilian, noticed something was different. By this time, El was fully in the transition process, with obvious physical changes. But, the doctor never directly asked the question, something El said he would have been comfortable with should he be asked. But the question never came.
Once graduated and serving as a Second Lieutenant, El began to live as a man, albeit when off duty. The decision in 2015 by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to effectively end discharges for service members solely due to their trans identity came when El was deployed as an admin officer. At that point, El told his command he did not need anything from them, but that he would be submitting the paperwork necessary once they returned home.
El’s status as a service member who is trans has been supported by two consecutive battalion commanders. Once back from deployment, he requested to have convalescent leave after a surgery related to his transition that he would be paying for out-of-pocket. The commander supported it, and did not ask any questions about the purpose of the elective surgery, but instead focused on the readiness aspect he would be confronted with as a commander.
When asked if there was a plan at that point to begin officially “treating” him as a male; as at its foundation, the only difference would be the PT test, weigh-ins, and where to use the latrine. “That’s probably about as simple as it is,” El says. “But in other people’s minds, it’s this large, ridiculous, cumbersome process, I don’t know what they think it involves, I can’t tell you. Instead of peeing here, you’ll now pee there.” But with that first commander, there was no discussion about treating El as a male soldier.
Shortly thereafter, he moved to a new unit and deployed again. El is now done with his transition, and for the past year has been navigating the paperwork to be recognized as a male in the DEERS system. All of the surgeries, documents, letters from doctors, everything has been submitted; El is still waiting for it to actually change in the system.
Since the President’s Tweets about a trans ban, El’s command has said they will continue to treat him no differently. The word came while he was at a field training exercise, cut off from the news cycle. “That was mildly stressful,” referring to the tweets when he learned of them.
So, what do you do when living in professional limbo, not knowing if the career you are investing in today could be taken from you tomorrow for a reason outside of your control? El says his own challenges notwithstanding, he can’t help but think about the effect such a ban will have on the Army as a whole, “We are company commanders, special operators… the ones that are actually conducting operations right now. I thought about what it does to a unit to rip a leader out in the middle of whatever they have going on. What does it reinforce in the minds of soldiers who really don’t know who trans people are, what trans people are?”
In the meantime, El is continuing his duties as an Army Officer, while simultaneously planning on life after the military should he be forced out. He planned on making a career out of the Army, but now is looking at what decisions must be made to support him and his wife outside of the military. For someone facing such potentially dire circumstances and uncertainty, El is remarkably calm and collected. Going forward, service to country and fellow soldiers continues being his motivation for showing up to work every day.
“For a lot of junior soldiers, the Army is all they have,” he says. “I can’t help but think about what they must going through, or the panic they are in, thinking their livelihood is coming to an end. This is all they know.”