Transgender soldier speaks out on military service, despite Trump's on-again-off-again ban: 'I'm breaking ground'

Transgender people serving in the U.S. military — a population estimated to be between 1,320 and 6,620 individuals  — have been on an emotional roller coaster since at least 2016. That’s when the Obama administration announced, “Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly,” lifting what had always been a ban on such service.  

Rejoicing didn’t last long, however. In July 2017, President Trump bluntly tweeted, seemingly out of nowhere, that the military will no longer “accept or allow” transgender people to serve, creating chaos and questions. In October, a judge blocked enforcement of the ban, and then, as of January, transgender service members were welcomed once again, as the Justice Department on Friday put the proposed ban on hold and said it would not appeal federal court rulings ordering the military to begin the enlistments.

And now, in an attempt to stop any further whiplash on the subject, Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN have begun a new legal challenge, hoping to permanently stop Trump from banning transgender troops in the military.

Meanwhile, throughout all the ups and downs and mixed messaging, transgender troops have been quietly serving their country — including Zane Alvarez, 23, currently serving in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, as a behavioral health technician, assessing active-duty members for supportive mental-health services. “But I went through basic training and advanced individual training, and I learned how to fire a weapon like everybody else,” Alvarez told Yahoo Lifestyle back in July, after Trump first tweeted about the ban. Because of his uncertain standing, he could not attach his name to his story then. But Yahoo Lifestyle has stayed in contact with Alvarez, who can now speak openly about his past and current experiences in the military. This, in his own words, is his story.

I came into the army in July 2012 at the age of 17. I enlisted because it’s a family business. My father is still active duty in the U.S. Army, and my grandfather served as well. I was just about to start my senior year of high school and I felt completely unprepared for what the world had in store for me; college honestly terrified me. But I had a pretty good understanding of what the military is about: I grew up around it; I knew my dad wasn’t the best kid growing up and that after being in the army it changed him, and I hoped it could do the same for me.

[When I enlisted] I wasn’t thinking about transitioning at all. All I was thinking about was getting in the Army and following in my father’s footsteps. I had had a lot of friends that were very homophobic and transphobic, and in turn I actually became extremely homophobic and transphobic for the longest time. So I denied it for years. It took a while to get to this point.

What I’d been known for in high school is when it came time to dress up, I really dressed up. There was a point when I had long hair and would wear makeup whenever it was prom or homecoming. Outside of that I was kind of tomboyish — I had long hair but would rarely wear a skirt if I didn’t have to. But I could dress girly.

It was well after high school that I started identifying as a lesbian, then bisexual, and I started dressing more masculine and got more comfortable with myself. I remember when I finally had to go clothes shopping, and I went to some big major store and women’s section and trying to figure out what in the world to pick out and I was like, “Wait a minute, this is my own money; I can pick out whatever I want!” I did not know how to dress myself, so all I did is buy jeans and T-shirts. But I finally got comfortable with dressing how I wanted to dress. I finally stopped caring about what people thought.

On transitioning while on active duty…

I started socially transitioning in 2015 to close friends and my aunt and my younger sister. Then I started medically transitioning in January 2016, with hormone replacement treatment, or HRT [testosterone], which is something that is paid for by the military. There wasn’t an established plan as to how they wanted soldiers to start transitioning, so all I needed was a letter from a behavioral health provider stating that I have gender dysphoria and that it would benefit me to start hormone replacement therapy.

Basically it’s all a matter of paperwork [and getting an] ETP, or exception to policy, outlining my care … it’s on its way up to D.C. and then it comes back to me and just takes a while to push through.

At this moment in time on all of my legal documents, and according to the Army, I am still a female on paper. So at work if I use the bathroom or if I’m in the field or I deploy, I have to be roomed with females or I have to use the women’s restroom or locker room, and when I’m in my dress uniform I have to wear the women’s dress uniform — the main difference being that the female uniform is made to hug the body, to show the female figure, even down to the shoes, which look like a pair of flats.

But I’m the furthest ahead in my transition compared with all the other transgender soldiers here in Europe. I’m the one who’s been breaking ground. There are about 20 of us for now, spread out. I know this through different groups, through other people reaching out to me, my Instagram and Facebook posts, [which I do] so people can reach out to me. Like, “Hey, you are a fellow transgender service member.”

Of the other trans service members I follow, I probably most look up to drill sergeant Ken Ochoa, who is female-to-male like myself; he went through the drill sergeant academy as female and already had started his transition, had top surgery, but still had to go through as female and did an amazing job. Another person is Aydian Dowling, a major person in the trans community, and Laverne Cox … and Logan Ireland and Laila Villanueva, who are doing a lot for the trans military community, looking out for the other transgender people who are struggling, who don’t have the money … or family support, and are helping those who need it.

When I go on a mission, I sleep in a female bay — basically a large room with nothing but bunk beds. (Otherwise I have my own room.) There are male bays and female bays. It gets pretty frustrating at times. Not everybody in my unit knows … so essentially, I’m having to come out over and over again. There are times when people have told me, “I’m completely uncomfortable with you being here,” and I can’t do anything about it. I have no choice but to say, “I’m sorry; I’m not happy about it either.”

There are not a lot of facilities that still have open room showers; it’s more like stalls with curtains, so you see people coming in and out. Before I do anything I let all the females know about my situation in advance and if at all possible I plan around it. I try to shower earlier and later than everybody else.

Thankfully in my unit, there’s no [hostility], but sometimes when I go on a temporary duty assignment … there is. One time, my situation was basically made out to be a joke, and there was a lot of behind-the-door conversation about me, and it was terrible. It just honestly felt terrible.

A big thing in military culture is having a tough skin. I had such a big problem with that before I started testosterone. I was very emotional at one point and time in my life. It’s way behind me now, but testosterone has given me a lot of confidence, and I don’t cower nearly as much.

I remember when I got my first shot of testosterone — actually for the first few months, every time I gave myself a shot — it was such a sense of euphoria. I noticed all these little changes, like my voice is a little deeper, or more muscle development, or that crappy mustache I can grow now — all these little itty-bitty victories, things that some people can take for granted. Every time someone I don’t know refers to me as a male, calls me “gentleman” or “young man” or “sir,” I always smile. That is the number one thing that makes my day, when someone recognizes me as a guy.

When you transition from female to male [in the military], the difference for the [physical] tests is outrageous. So let’s say I were to max my pushups: For females in my age group, it’s 19 pushups in two minutes, it’s plenty of time. For a male, in order to just pass, it’s 40 pushups. For running, it’s a two-mile run and I’ve always hated running, I’m a terrible runner. If I want to get the max amount of points for the female PT test it’s 19:38, and to pass it for males it’s 16:36, so I’d have to run that much faster. But I don’t make excuses. Even though I’m still recognized as female, if you told me today I had to take the male PT test, I would do it and I would pass.

On family…

[Coming out to] family was extremely hard at first, because of the way my parents grew up. I’m Hispanic, and Hispanics can be very traditional sometimes. When my dad joined the Army he started off infantry, and that’s an entirely different culture that’s very intense. So it was a little rough at first. But now? I surprised my family last Father’s Day and no one messed up my name, no one messed up my pronoun. My dad was extremely happy to see me. When we go out to dinner and I’m wearing a suit — not a dress and makeup — they see me as their son. When my mom refers to me, I am their son.

When I heard about Trump’s tweet…

It was my day off … and I get a call from one of my bosses, a sergeant. I asked what was going on and she told me. … It really caught me off guard, because [Trump] was someone who prior to the election said, “I’m for the LGBT community.” He was literally holding the pride flag, and I don’t think he realizes how close-knit our community is and what that flag means to us.

So I was disappointed to hear there would be a ban. I come from a military family. I could potentially lose a career that is very important to me.

When I learned, back in June 2016, that the original transgender military ban had been lifted…

I was here in Germany. I remember following this for weeks … at the edge of my seat. On the day when [Obama] finally said yes for open trans service, I hung my trans flag up on my barrack windows for everybody to see, and it’s still up, next to my rainbow flag, so people see it all the time and ask me about it. I was so happy. I talked to all sorts of friends and family. I didn’t have to hide anymore. I didn’t have to pretend. It was an amazing day. I don’t know what will come of [the latest legal challenge], but I’m ready for whatever happens.

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