Speaking with the Secretary of Defense as an openly serving transgender soldier was a surreal moment for me. It hadn't been that long since I was hiding the fact that I was transgender from my peers and my commander, terrified that at any moment my career could be taken from me by an outdated regulation.
The day I was outed to my unit, I remember sitting in my battalion commanders conference room physically shaking, more afraid than I had been at any other moment during 11 years of service. Almost eighteen months later I found myself sitting calmly and confidently in the Pentagon next to the most powerful individual in the Department of Defense, Secretary Carter. The days between those two meetings were filled with more emotions than I had ever felt in my life; days of hope and tenacity darkened by an equal number full of anxiety and despair. I spoke to both of these men about being transgender and my desire to continue serving my country. The first counseled me that I could be separated from the military; the second thanked me for staying.
I began transitioning in 2014 after moving to Fort Lewis, Washington. Only a week or two prior I had met transgender soldiers at a secret conference organized by SPART*A. When I left it was with a sense of determination. I had put off transitioning because of my career, but at that moment I knew that I couldn't wait any longer. I was soon assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team, where I spent the rest of the year training around the world. From the dry deserts of Fort Irwin, California, to the humid jungles of Malaysia, and snow covered fields of northern Japan, I was excited be a part of the unit. At least I was most days.
Every day that passed I was still hiding who I was, and with that came the fear of what someone discovering my gender identity could mean. It wasn't as simple as a truth about myself that I was hiding but my entire identity. I had legally changed my name but couldn't yet tell the military. Physically I was transitioning so much that each moment in a male segregated area was spent ensuring no one could see my developing feminine features, changing clothes in the dark and washing bras in a sink so they would not be left unattended.
Every decision I made was calculated to ensure secrecy. The looming threat of discharge was a weight that grew heavier each day until it was almost more than I could bear to carry. I could only keep this up for so long before I felt like everything I did was a lie, that I had lost my integrity and compromised my values. That's why as difficult as being outed was, it also came with a sense of relief.
Every day over those next 18 months brought a new challenge for both my leadership and myself. I was already transitioning, but my unit wanted to retain me. Soon my command informed me there was no intention to pursue discharge but that left the question, "Now what?". They supported me when they were able, looked the other way when they could, and enforced male standards when they couldn't. These were infantrymen doing the best they could in a situation they didn't fully understand with little guidance. Looking back, I realize they did their best.
As with all soldiers, I eventually moved to a new unit. A move that came with new commanders and new challenges. Guidance was still pending. Regulations were more strictly enforced. All of this brought stress and anxiety to the forefront of my life, as by this time I had fully transitioned in every aspect of my life except within the military where uniform and grooming standards still prevented me from doing so. My life as a soldier and a trans woman continued to come into conflict with each other. Like thousands of other trans service members, I waited for the Pentagon to release guidance to bring an end to what had started to feel like an endless nightmare.
I told these things to a Marine general that morning in the Pentagon; that I had lost my integrity long ago to continue serving. I'll never forget that he said, "It's like telling the coach you're fine even when it hurts, you do what you have to in order to stay in the game."
I told Secretary Carter these things as well. I wanted him to know that I was no different from any other soldier in the Army, and that I only asked to change my gender and then be held to the same standards as every other female. The Secretary of Defense thanked us for continuing to serve despite the adversity and stated that it would soon be over.
Maybe that is why when I sat down to watch the announcement on Thursday morning I expected a calm sense of relief; I already knew what was coming. But when Secretary Carter formally announced the lifting of the ban on transgender people serving in the military I was overwhelmed by more emotion than I could have imagined.
For over a decade I have been proud to be soldier. Recently I have found my place in the LGBT community, and I am a proud trans woman. From that moment on those two things would no longer be in conflict. I could be proud of who I was in the military.
This Fourth of July I will celebrate our victory and everything that open service means for thousands of transgender service members. On the fifth it will be time to get back to the real work of defending this nation.
Jennifer Peace is a Captain in the United States Army with combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. She is a transgender woman who serves as the regional director for SPART*A, a military LGBT Organization. Since 2014 Jennifer has been working with filmmakers to feature her and her family's story in the forthcoming documentary, 'TransMilitary'.