Despite Biden's Order, Transgender Recruits Still Wait To Join The Military
Though President Biden signed an executive order allowing transgender people to serve in the military, would-be recruits are waiting for the Pentagon to develop policies before they can enlist.
20 year old Drew Garza from Corpus Christi, Texas put his military ambitions on ice in 2017.
He'd come out as trans early in high school. At 16, he was already preparing to enlist by working out and taking practice versions of the military's aptitude test. Then President Trump banned new transgender recruits from the armed services.
"I went in to speak to a recruiter around 16, 17, and that's when the tweets came out and then the ban came out," Garza said.
By that point, Garza had a gender dysphoria diagnosis and was reworking his legal documentation to reflect his self-identified gender. But he wasn't able to do it in time to meet the Trump Administration's April 2019 deadline barring new trans recruits.
"Everything kind of just went like, okay, it's not going to work out, at least not right now," Garza said.
It was a big blow. Garza comes from a long line of servicemembers, so joining felt like a rite of passage and a way of embracing his new identity. He wanted to become a SERE - Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape - specialist in either the Marines or the Air Force, teaching others how to survive in challenging situations.
So even as he began hormone treatments and had top surgery, he became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the ban.
But as the case made its way through the courts, Garza had no choice but to wait.
He got a job in information technology, practiced his pull-ups, and mostly kept to himself. But things shifted when President Biden lifted the ban in late January.
"Then, I kid you not... I had an Army recruiter message me," Garza said. "Then a Marine recruiter followed. Then, just yesterday, an Air Force recruiter contacted me and I was like 'Yes!' I take it to mean, like, now I'm being seen."
Despite political controversy about whether transgender troops affect the readiness of the service, the recruiters who contacted Garza were eager to bring him in.
Garza said he's thrilled to have options. But he and many other transgender people still await the Defense Department's formal policy, which will lay out the requirements and rules for their service.
"What we're really telling people is 'Get ready,'" said Lt. Col. Bree Fram, an Air Force aeronautical engineer and head of the military transgender organization SPARTA. She's telling would-be enlistees to hold off from going to recruiting stations, because there's still no way to process them in.
"'As soon as the policy actually comes out, you need to read it, understand it, and you're probably going to have to help educate your recruiter on it, because it's going to be new to them as well," Fram said.
Fram said she expects the Pentagon to come out with a new policy in fairly short order. She anticipates that it will borrow heavily from the rules that were in place under the Obama administration.
However the Defense Department's policy comes down, Fram said SPARTA's priorities will remain the same. The organization wants to reduce the bureaucratic burden on transgender troops, push for equal medical treatment, and make sure transgender people are treated the same across the services.
"If we can get people in the door, start utilizing their talents and then evolve the policy over time, long term, I think we're going to have more of a positive impact," Fram said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a Jan. 29 memo that he would consult with senior civilian and military leaders over 60 days to develop policies in keeping with President Biden's order. An earlier statement from Austin indicated that prospective recruits "may serve in their self-identified gender when they have met the appropriate standards for accession into the military services."
For now, the military branches are trying to navigate the uncertainty. Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston was asked about transgender service in a town hall last month. He clarified that the Army would operate under the Trump Administration rules until more guidance comes down.
"It does take us some time to review the policy," Grinston said. "We had a policy in 2016 that changed. There was another executive order that was signed by the president at the time, and then we made a change.
"So whatever policy we have [now], that is still in effect. But that doesn't mean we're not going to look at it."
After the Obama Administration first announced that openly trans people could serve and be recruited, it took about 18 months for the policy to fully take effect. When former President Trump later banned trans recruits, there was a lag of more than 18 months between when he signed the order and when the policy began.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.