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'Hoping we don't take two steps back': Transgender veterans reflect on gains made in 2021

Air Force veteran Avalisa Ellicott (left) and Navy veteran Paula Neira. (Courtesy)
Air Force veteran Avalisa Ellicott (left) and Navy veteran Paula Neira. (Courtesy)

It has been a notable year for American military veterans identifying as transgender.

President Joe Biden repealed a Trump administration ban on transgender people serving in the military. And this year the government also took steps to provide medical and other benefits to those service members.

During their service, Avalisa Ellicott and Paula M. Neira both feared getting kicked out of the military for being transgender.

Neira, clinical program director at the John Hopkins Center for Transgender Health who served in the Navy, says she couldn’t ask for help because merely acknowledging her struggle with gender identity could have ended her career with an administrative discharge for something like a personality disorder. In the end, Neira resigned.

“That was the level of hostility that existed 35, 30 years ago,” Neira says, “even at the same time that the military first recognizes that the reason why transgender people couldn’t serve had nothing to do with military necessity or medicine, but just ignorance and bigotry.”

Ellicott, communications director of the Transgender American Veterans Association, got medical retirement and transitioned as soon as she left the military.

The Air Force veteran served under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” She says she was glad to see the law repealed in 2011 so other trans people won’t go through what she experienced.

“I was consistently in the lawyer’s office and those were the only people that I trusted. And I was asking them, ‘OK, what can get me kicked out? What will take my future from me? Whose word can do that for me?’ ” Ellicott says. “It was absolutely terrifying.”

Interview Highlights

On the impact of the government allowing veterans who were discharged during “don’t ask, don’t tell” and did not have an honorable discharge to apply for benefits like pensions, medical benefits, educational benefits

Paula Neira: “The real practical effect is that people that earned benefits through their actual honorable service, now we’re going to be able to access that. And it’s being able to maybe buy a house and use a [Veterans Affairs] loan. If you qualify for some type of educational benefit that you get to use it, that you’re able to access the VA medical system. If you have a compensable medical issue related to your military service that you can be now compensated for it. All those things were barred if you did not have a completely honorable discharge, even if you had a general under honorable conditions. Some of your benefits were withheld. And now you know, this change in policy is going to allow people to access it in a great way, and it’s going to benefit thousands of people.”

On the government now offering transgender surgery to veterans and the impact on mental health

Avalisa Ellicott: “Gender dysphoria is extremely hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but it is a really tough thing, and not every trans person wants surgery. Not every trans person needs some type of medical transition. But for those who do, the direct effect that it has on mental health is outstanding with depression and anxiety. And when you’re living a life that doesn’t feel fulfilled, when you look in the mirror and you hate what you see because of the way that you were born, for a lot of people, specifically young trans kids, it results into suicidal thoughts. And so for different insurance companies to come to the conclusion that medical transition, gender-affirming surgeries are necessary and to start including them in coverage. But for the VA and TRICARE and all of these other, you know, government adjacent health options, for them to say no, it hurts.”

On pursuing surgery when this policy change kicks in

Ellicott: “That means I can finally cross something off that has hurt me and made my life difficult for my entire life. It’s not, you know, that this is something that I have wanted, you know, for the past five years, for the past 10 years. I remember being a child and being upset that my body didn’t look like other girls. And so that has been unreachable for me. It seemed like it was a possibility before the last administration, and then all of that was taken away. And so for it to finally be a reality for me, it’s going to change my life.”

On whether a future president might roll back these policy changes

Neira: “It’s very possible. As you know, one of the things that you just saw in the last administration with the active-duty policy of allowing transgender service had a change in administration and a 180 in policy. And the same thing can happen again until these are embedded in our legislation. When they’re covered benefit covered by public law, then that threat recedes a little bit. And what we’re talking about is medically necessary care. You know, there’s decades of research that show that it’s medically necessary and you want it embedded in the regulations in the culture of the V.A. providing this kind of care. And that makes it a little bit more difficult just for a change in political administration to change these rules.”

On what policy changes Ellicott want to see in 2022

Ellicott: “As far as this legislation goes, I just hope to be able to at least do some type of anti-discriminatory legislation that actually protects and covers trans people. I think everything else is really far in the future because before we have these changes and before we see these changes, we need to change as a society. We need to understand that the way people live their lives has absolutely nothing to do with us, and we shouldn’t have to try and control that. But again, I think that’s just really far in the future. And so I’m celebrating the things that are happening now and celebrating the steps that we make as we move forward and being grateful for them and just hoping that, you know, we don’t take two steps back.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.