Jennifer Ingram grew up in a military family in San Antonio and always knew that she wanted to serve. In 2001, when she was 19 years old, she enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. In her decade-long career, she completed a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq and rose to the rank of staff sergeant.
“I loved the military,” Ingram said. “I was very good at it. I got promoted fast.”
Ingram, who was born a man and enlisted as Justin, told no one in the army that she identified as a woman. If she had, she could have been discharged under a policy that classified transgender people as sexual deviants. In 2011, struggling with the stress of hiding her identity and worried that she would be discovered and forced out of the military, she decided to leave and began transitioning to female.
“It’s hard because gender makes up a huge part of who you are,” Ingram said. “It’s a very core part of you. To keep it hidden, it does get taxing. And that’s why I made the decision to get out.”
Soon, however, Ingram may choose to rejoin the military and serve openly as a transgender woman. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Thursday afternoon that the Pentagon is lifting its ban on transgender troops. Effective immediately, Carter said, transgender people cannot be discharged or separated from their units because of their gender identity.
Texas is home to more than 100,000 active-duty military personnel, and a study released this month by the Williams Institute, a think tank that focuses on gender identity and sexual orientation, found that 0.66 percent of Texans identify as transgender — the fifth-highest rate in the nation.
The announcement comes after weeks of headlines about Texas officials fighting the Obama administration’s directive that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Lou Weaver, transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas, said the Pentagon’s policy change could ultimately lead to greater acceptance of transgender people in Texas.
“People will see that transgender people are able to go to work, serve their country, do their job, they have the same strong values that all Americans do,” Weaver said. “Here in Texas, we care about our Texas values. Seeing [transgender] people at Fort Hood, or the Air Force base in San Antonio, these things are going to matter.”
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, condemned Carter’s announcement in a press release as “the latest example of the Pentagon and the President prioritizing politics over policy.” Thornberry said the military should be focused on ensuring individual readiness.
“The administration seems unwilling or unable to assure the Congress and the American people that transgender people will meet these individual readiness requirements at a time when our Armed Forces are deployed around the world,” Thornberry said.
Carter announced the creation last July of a six-month working group to study the ban, and he had been expected to announce the end of the ban earlier this year. Some transgender troops already serve openly, accepted by commanders and colleagues. Air Force Staff Sergeant Logan Ireland, a Dallas native who was born a woman, enlisted in 2010 when he was 23 and began transitioning in 2012. Since last year, when he returned from a deployment to Afghanistan where he served as a man, his commanders have recognized him as a man.
Ireland said the policy change will bring uniformity and clarity to the military’s hiring practices — and relief for transgender troops now concealing their gender identities.
“It’s taken this long to get the policy up to speed,” Ireland said. “For good reason, we don’t just want to put out a policy to put out a policy. But finally we’re getting this change. The rest of my transgender brothers and sisters don’t have to serve in silence anymore.”
The new policy allows transgender troops to access care deemed medically necessary by their doctors, including hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. Openly transgender people will be able to enlist provided they have completed their transition and been stable in their gender identity for 18 months.
Carter said the working group believed ending the transgender ban would have minimal effects on military readiness. The policy change will be implemented in stages. Within 90 days, the department will develop a guidebook for leaders of transgender troops, and medical guidelines for physicians. By July 1, 2017, the military will begin accepting transgender members who meet the requirement of stability in their gender identity.
The Rand Corporation, which was asked to study the effects of ending the ban, estimated that the number of transgender active duty troops is between 1,320 and 6,630, out of a force of 1.3 million. Rand predicted no more than 140 members would initiate hormone therapy each year, and no more than 130 would require surgery, at a cost of $2.4 to $8.4 million.
For LGBT service members, Thursday’s announcement was bittersweet: a victory, but also a reminder that for decades many troops had been forced to choose between honesty and job security. The Pentagon has said that it does not keep records on how many troops have been discharged because they are transgender.
Ret. Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, a San Antonio native who became the first American injured in the Iraq War, gained national attention when he publicly came out as gay and advocated for the repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" beginning in 2007. Alva said he regretted that the July 2011 repeal enabled gay and lesbian service members to serve openly, but not transgender people. At the time, he said, winning protections for transgender troops was politically untenable.
“It hurt,” Alva said. “I knew we needed to do it. I had friends who were transgender. It almost felt like we were betraying them or leaving them behind. Like, ‘We’ll come back to you.’”
Thursday’s announcement, Alva said, means the Pentagon is moving towards full equality for transgender people.
For Ingram, Carter’s announcement could be as life-changing as the ban was.
“I’ve been getting very excited,” Ingram said. “I’m taking steps to get ready to get back into the service, because that is something I would like to do.”