Petty Officer Landon Wilson had been in Afghanistan for three weeks when he was suddenly sent back stateside.
A dominance warfare specialist, the sailor provided combat support for Special Operations members on the ground and the front lines. With an exemplary record, he was up for a promotion when a leader in Hawaii, where Wilson was based out of, saw something in his paperwork: female.
Within hours, the transgender sailor was on a plane back to the United States.
“My main concern was the fact that nobody was trained to replace me on my job. I was really more worried that it would be a huge vulnerability for our guys. That’s the thing I remember asking over and over again: Who’s going to do this? Who’s going to take care of this job?” Wilson remembers. “Other than that, I really wanted to believe that it wasn’t happening.
Wilson, 24, enlisted in the United States Navy at 21 out of Warner Robins, Ga. as a female, eager to serve his country. Also, confused about his gender identity, he thought the masculine world of the military was a perfect fit for him. When he came to terms with being transgender, he decided to undergo hormone treatment with his own money.
"DoD regulations don't allow transgender individuals to serve in the U.S. military, based upon medical standards for military service,” said Lt. Commander Nate Christensen, a DoD spokesman, citing the department’s manual.
According to the Williams Institute (http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Transgender-Military-Service-May-2014.pdf), about 15,500 active duty service members in all branches of the military, including reservists and National Guard, are transgender. When including veterans, the number shoots up to 134,300.
For Wilson, who always presented himself very masculine, it was a fairly seamless transition. Sailors refer to each other by their last name, military fatigues are unisex, and he had his hair cut short, so no one seemed to notice. Those who did know didn’t say anything. When his commander broke the news to him that he had to go, he called him “brother.”
Some have sided with the military, saying that Wilson knowingly broke the rules of the Armed Forces when he enlisted.
“To say that I was even really able to admit that I was transgender at the time that I enlisted would be wrong,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t until I realized that I was transgender and by beginning my transition that I would be a better sailor and a better service member that I began the transition.”
SPART*A (Service members, Partners, and Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All) serves as an advocate for LGBT soldiers in all branches of the military. The group’s goals are to gain equal opportunity protections for LGBT service members, ensuring that same-sex spouses are treated fairly, and revising military regulations that disqualify transgender service members from joining the Armed Forces.
While the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was celebrated, transgender service members were not included. The asterix was added to the T as a symbol of solidarity for transgender soldiers who are unable to openly serve.
“We feel that we made a commitment not to leave anyone behind,” said Sue Fulton, a chairwoman.
However, there may be changes coming. A major win came earlier this year when Sec. Chuck Hagel said publicly that he is in favor of reviewing the military’s current standards on transgender service members.
"I'm open to those assessments because, again, I go back to the bottom line: every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it,” Hagel told ABC's "This Week" program.
He added that “the issue of transgender is a bit more complicated” because of medical needs and that not all locations where service members are assigned can accommodate that.
Commanders are reacting differently to transgender sailors, soldiers and Marines. Some quietly accommodate the transgender person while others out them. Some transgender members simply live in the closet. Fulton also noted that during wartime, commanders tend to overlook it. With troops being pulled back, it’s the reverse.
“Commanders are reacting in many different ways. This is one of the reasons we are eager to see the Pentagon review their policy,” Fulton said.
Fulton, a retired Army captain, graduated from West Point in the first class that opened its ranks to women. She was honorably discharged after five years and came out years later while working to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“I couldn’t keep hiding any longer,” she said about leaving the military. “I couldn’t live a lie.”
However, she’s still able to do her part for the military, not only through SPART*A but also serving on West Point’s Board of Visitors, a role President Barack Obama named her to.
Wilson is also a member of SPART*A and is working to bring a documentary on transgender service members to fruition. “Transmilitary” is in the fundraising stages and will feature the stories of those like Wilson, and compare their experiences to those of service members in the United Kingdom, where they’ve been able to serve openly since 1999.
Visit Transmilitary.tv and GoFundMe.com/SupportTransMilitary to support the documentary.