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One year waiting: Transgender man who wants to enlist cites coronavirus urgency

Marking the anniversary of Trump's ban on military service, Ryan Karnoski talked to NBC News about his lawsuit against the president.
Lambda Legal West Coast Liberty Awards 2018
Ryan Karnoski at the Lambda Legal West Coast Liberty Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif., on June 7, 2018.Randy Shropshire / Getty Images for Lambda Legal

Sunday marks one year since President Donald Trump barred transgender people from serving in the military. Ryan Karnoski is challenging the ban in court to fight for the opportunity as a transgender man to enlist.

Karnoski told NBC News that the coronavirus pandemic makes the effort even more important.

"It is frustrating that a year has gone by since this new iteration of the transgender ban on military service, especially right now as we're in this public health emergency," Karnoski said. "(The pandemic) is an important reminder to me to be doing everything that I can to be the best future behavioral health services officer than I can be, regardless of whether or not I'm trans."

Under then-President Barack Obama, the Pentagon lifted the transgender military ban on June 30, 2016, allowing openly transgender individuals to serve. About a year later, Trump announced a reinstatement of the ban in a series of tweets, citing "tremendous medical costs and disruption" as the reason for the change in policy.

After legal skirmishes, the ban was officially put into place on April 12, 2019, restricting openly transgender members from enlisting and requiring active members who come out as transgender to discharge.

Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic presidential nominee, has vowed to overturn the ban if elected, making 2020 a high-stakes year for the LGBTQ community.

Karnoski, 25, a social worker and currently working toward his doctorate in social welfare studies at the University of California-Berkeley, lives with his wife in the San Francisco Bay Area.

He said his goal is to become a behavioral health service officer, a commissioned officer in the military who provides mental health services.

Karnoski is a plaintiff in one of five lawsuits seeking to overturn the ban. While the litigation continues, he said he continues to prepare for the day he believes is coming when he will be able to enlist.

He said the mobilization of the U.S. military in the coronavirus outbreak showcases the importance of service in the armed forces.

"I don't think it's about me as an individual at all, I'm a piece of this larger battle," Karnoski said.

Karnoski also said his experience as a transgender person helps him to empathize with those in minority groups, which are disproportionately affected by the pandemic as well as other health problems.

"I really see being trans as something that augments all of those other things to help me serve patients in the best way that I could," Karnoski says.

Responding to what he says are common misconceptions about transgender people seeking to join the military, Karnoski noted that many people may not understand the community's diverse backgrounds and reasons for enlisting.

"I'm not joining the military so that I can get (transgender) surgeries or for medical care or even so that my education would be paid for," Karnoski says.

"I want (people) to think of what it means that prospective medical service corps officers have been turned away," he added, "and are being excluded from military service because of this ban, at a time when the country needs them most."

Kara Ingelhart, an attorney with Lambda Legal and counsel to Karnoski v. Trump, said: "I think it's clear that nobody's asking for any special treatment here. Just equal access."