MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The face of the U.S. military is changing. This month marks one year since the Pentagon lifted its ban on transgender service members.
Some soldiers, including two in the Minnesota National Guard, are now reporting for duty as a gender other than the one they were born under.
Tarrence Robertson doesn’t shy away from breaking barriers. Before the world would meet Tarrence, there was Tara, who on a deployment to Afghanistan became the first female in Minnesota to serve in a combat zone.
“It took the guys a little while to get used to me,” Robertson said.
That was only the first trail the captain would blaze.
“I felt like I should have always been a boy, I just, I couldn’t explain it,” Robertson said.
It’s a feeling often shared by those who are transgender. Because of the military’s ban on transgender troops, Robertson repressed those feelings in and outside the military.
“I love serving in the military and I didn’t want to risk my career,” he said.
Meanwhile in a different unit, another solider had the same feelings about gender, but repressing them was too much to bear. Sgt. Sebastian Nemec had been living as a man at home, but going to drill female.
“At this time, you could get kicked out for being openly transgender, and so that was something I just didn’t tell the Guard,” he said. “I would get really anxious before drill and I’d have to do some self-care after a drill weekend because in civilian life I was pronouned correctly. I would use the male restroom, male locker room. Everything was perfectly fine, but then when I would go to drill I was forced to do all female things, and so that got to be really hard.”
That double life for the soldiers ended July 30, 2016, when then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted the ban on allowing transgender troops from serving openly. Robertson and Nemec said deciding to transition — taking hormones and undergoing surgery — was the easy part. Telling comrades, they say, took more bravery than deploying for battle.
“I stood in front of my company and addressed every solider in the company that I was transgender,” Robertson said. “It was very difficult. I was reluctant and I felt like I had to do it because we recently got some results from a survey that came back and there were some soldiers that had expressed some concern, that had heard that I was transgender and they were concerned about having a transgender commander. They were concerned about sharing a bathroom with me.”
Since they began serving as men, both Robertson and Nemec have met little resistance.
“At my new unit, they’re very accepting and are encouraging,” Nemec said. “My supervisor helped a lot and my company commander helped a lot.”
A ban on enlisting new transgender recruits had been set to expire at the beginning of July. However, at the request of U.S. military chiefs, that has been delayed six months.
Both soldiers are in a sort of “in between time.” While the Pentagon processes their gender change request, they are still required to use female bathrooms.
“We have a couple of single-stall bathrooms, so I always use those as opposed to using the regular, full bathrooms, just to try to ease anybody’s concerns,” Robertson said.
Where to sleep on overnight drills can also be an issue.
“Once I was on hormones for a while and my voice started dropping, and when new people would come to the unit they would automatically perceive me as male. It’s like, ‘You probably shouldn’t be sleeping in the female bay.’ But by regulation I can’t sleep in the male bay either,” said Nemec.
The solution? His company commanders arranged for him a single room. It’s a culture of acceptance that flows all the way from the top brass of the Minnesota National Guard.
“We are becoming a much more inclusive force,” Brigadier General Jon Jensen, Commander of the 34th Infantry Division, said.
Jensen believes an inclusive military is a strong military.
“We need to reflect our society and our culture that we come from and we know that these people are present in our community,” he said. “So why should they not be part of our military? Why should we not allow them to contribute to their country?”
It’s an unprecedented time in the U.S. military, and these members are proud to lead the way.
“I want to lead a path, bring some of these people together as well as show younger trans people that it’s possible to do all these things,” Nemec said.
And while they are proof it is now possible to be transgender and soldier, there is one they hope always comes first.
“I just don’t want it to be a thing, or a label,” Nemec said. “I’m a soldier. That is the first thing that I am.”