Over three years after President Obama signed the bill ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," transgender people are still medically prohibited from serving in the military without exception. This has increasingly gained attention from high-level media sources such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Economist.
On Saturday, Secretary of Defense Hagel addressed the issue in a taped interview with Martha Raddatz. In it, Hagel stated:
"I do think it continually should be reviewed. I'm open to that. 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," he said. Transgender issues are "an area that we've not defined enough."
When I saw this, it was an emotional moment for me. So much of my life over the past two years has been dedicated to this issue, and every step of the way there have been naysayers. People have told me and the 200+ actively serving transgender members of SPARTA repeatedly that this will take decades, that this is an unworthy effort or an impossible one.
When I was at Creating Change this year, I met with someone who works for a large progressive organization. We swapped business cards and she asked me what my area of advocacy was. When I told her that it was open transgender military service, she sarcastically replied, "Wow, you sure know how to pick the easy ones."
What people don't think about, though, is that our group is often fueled by equal parts desperation and hope.
Desperation to avoid being found out, put off medical treatment, avoid having our medical treatment discovered, hold up a façade and method act as if our lives depend on it, hide what we think and feel, and often try to stretch it those last few years to military retirement.
Desperation, because the stakes get even higher.
There's the fear of being outed, losing our jobs, our careers, losing our families, unemployment, homelessness, and the list of horribles that can happen when your life implodes for coming out as transgender in the military.
Worse, the military is experiencing an epidemic of sexual assaults, and at the same time we have a room full of people who are at high risk, yet are unlikely to report it for fear of being outed. Tragically, far too many of our number have had to make that decision.
We've successfully taken care of each other for the two and a half years the group has existed, but in the back of our minds it feels like a race against time. We have to get this done, because these factors conspire with time and the laws of probability against us.
But, then there's hope. Some people dream of what things will be like when they get out of the service and can be themselves. For a lot of others, they imagine what it will be like to do the job they love, to serve, and to so openly with the pride they feel in it.
They imagine what it will be like to not have to hide, to not have that fear following them like a thundercloud. So many of our members are competitive and perfectionists. We're good at what we do, but we also imagine how we could be even better given the chance. We wonder what we could accomplish given access to our full potential in service to our country.
For me, personally, I want that feeling of putting on a uniform again. I know I'll be able to hold my head a little higher, feel like I'm putting back into the system, and that I'm still worthy of serving. I imagine not feeling so much like a legally designated second-class citizen.
I can't help imagining what it will be like to have my orders in hand when I can go back to drill. To walk in again and say, "Lieutenant Commander Tannehill, reporting as ordered." Like so many others, I want that second chance.
So, when the news about the Pentagon's shift in position came out, there was a renewed sense of much-needed hope. It also felt like vindication.
For so many of us in the group, we have fought so hard and been told so many times that this isn't winnable, that this first small victory feels huge. It also helps us keep believing that this can be done. It will get done. And we can make it happen if we keep fighting.
One of my closest friends in SPARTA, a transgender man and Army captain, once observed, "The military taught us to fight. Why are they surprised when we do?"
Truer words were never spoken.
We will fight, and we will win. It's what we were trained to do.