Laila Ireland woke up Wednesday to her phone ringing, and ringing, with the news.
“It was messages asking, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ and ‘What are we going to do?’” said the Honolulu native, transgender Army veteran and membership director with SPARTA, an advocacy group for LGBT military members.
A day after President Donald Trump unleashed several cryptic tweets saying transgender individuals would not be allowed to serve “in any capacity in the U.S. military,” Ireland, the Pentagon and, indeed, the nation were still trying to figure out what that means.
Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a memo Thursday to service chiefs saying, “I know there are questions about yesterday’s announcement on the transgender policy by the president. There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance.”
Ireland and her husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland, are at the center of the new controversy. Both are transgender, and the couple — who married in Hawaii in 2016 — has become prominent in the fight for equal rights in the military.
Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in June 2016 that transgender individuals would be able to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces. A year earlier the White House invited Logan Ireland and Laila Villanueva, then engaged, to an LGBT pride reception and meeting with President Barack Obama.
The transition to transgender service had been going relatively smoothly, Laila Ireland said. Then came Wednesday’s tweets.
“It was very disheartening because, as an advocate and a leader in the community, all of the work that we have done in the past couple of years (is) coming into question,” the Army veteran, who left the service in late 2015 after 12 years of duty, said in a phone interview.
SPARTA and other advocacy organizations are mobilizing, with Lambda Legal threatening to “sue in a heartbeat” if the “disgraceful tweet” actually becomes policy. But Ireland, a 2004 Leilehua High School graduate, acknowledges that advocacy groups don’t yet have a grasp on where Trump’s pronouncement is headed.
She and others point out that some of Trump’s stated premise — that the military is “burdened with the tremendous medical cost” of transgender individuals — is faulty. The RAND Corp. said in a 2016 study that the costs of gender transition-related health care treatment “are relatively low,” with less than 0.1 percent of the total force expected to seek transition-related care that could disrupt their ability to deploy.
Ireland, 31, said Trump should look at the skills transgender troops provide now, and the acceptance levels for them in the ranks.
Trump said “disruption” resulted from allowing transgender service members, but “if he wants to talk about disruptiveness, then go to the units and see how it’s disrupting them: It’s not,” Ireland said.
“What’s absolutely disruptive,” she added, “is when you want to remove (transgender individuals) who are actively serving in vital roles — like pilots and aircrew members. You have military police, doctors, nurses and combat medics who are serving on the front lines.”
She has taken heart that unit leadership is telling transgender service members, “We heard about the news. This might be a hard time for you, but know that we are 110 percent supporting you.”
The Irelands are at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., where Logan, 29, is attending a leadership training course. The pair came together from very different transgender experiences in the military. Laila Ireland, a corporal, was stationed at Tripler Army Medical Center as a combat medic from late 2013 until she left the service in 2015.
“Logan’s unit and his command team were very supportive and worked well with him, knowing that he was transgender, whereas mine, they were the complete opposite and it was really tough,” Laila Ireland said.
Now she’s trying to help other transgender service members through the way ahead — including the president’s mercurial tweets.
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