The United States has the most advanced military in the entire world, but not when it comes to its enlistment policy.
Transgender soldiers are not allowed to fight for their country.
The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell in 2010 opened the door for openly gay service members, but it did nothing to assist the approximately 15,500 transgender people who serve in armed forces while remaining quiet about their sexuality, according to studies.
At an ACLU conference on Monday, retired and current service members said the ban on transgender troops is bad for individuals and job productivity.
We're "more effective as a force if we can all be who we are," said Paula M. Neira, a former Navy lieutenant.
Neira began her transition from male to female during the first Gulf War. It was a process she went through alone. "I can't talk to anybody," Neira recalled thinking.
Neira graduated with distinction from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1985, but went into the reserves because it allowed her to speak with civilian medical providers.
"I learned about the bombing in Baghdad while I was at an electrolysis appointment," she said.
U.S. Army National Guard Captain Jacob Eleazer and Paula M. Neira, RN, CEN, Esq. (LT, USN/USNR 1985-1991). (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
An expert in mine warfare combat, she was asked to return and deploy to the Persian Gulf.
Neira brought her "little bottle of hormone pills" to Operation Desert Storm. Then, she resigned.
"I knew there was no way I could continue to serve and be me," she said.
That happens far too often, advocates say. And it's pushing some of the best and brightest out of the military.
Senior Chief Kristin Beck, retired U.S. Navy SEAL. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)
"We're dismissing people who are awesome because of a regulation that doesn't make sense," said Senior Chief Kristin Beck, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who transitioned from male to female. "I still have the capability to kick ass."
So what will it take for the military to see that transgender troops can kick ass?
Transgender troops say it needs to be a decision made by top military brass in the Department of Defense, and not an executive order from the White House, which wouldn't have the same impact.
It's a "matter of having the will to say this is wrong," Neira said. Once the decision is made, implementing the policy would be "a simple logistics issue," she said.
Sweden and Australia have already done it.
Major Alexandra Larsson, of the Swedish Armed Forces, came out in the mid-90s and continues to serve.
Major Alexandra Larsson, Swedish Armed Forces. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)
"Everybody should have the same opportunity," Larsson told U.S. troops in Washington, D.C. on Monday. "Things can change. Keep up the work."
"It's an unfortunate predicament they find themselves in," added Major Donna Harding, of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps. "Being able to be open and authentic is the key to being able to perform your job."
U.S. transgender troops say that their fellow soldiers are fairly accepting of the idea of transgender military members. But military brass, they say, are like "career politicians" and reluctant to put their careers on the line by advocating for change.
U.S. Army National Guard Captain Jacob Eleazer has identified as male for the last four years. Before coming out, he said, "I felt like Batman."
In his private life he was male, but in uniform he was female. When word finally got out, he said, his commander "really put her neck out" by refusing to discharged him. Others have not been so lucky.
Captain Sage Fox, U.S. Army Reserve. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)
There's optimism that things could change within the next couple of years.
The "ball is rolling," Beck said, adding that there are meetings taking place in the Pentagon.
"This is going to be an incremental change as society evolves," Neira said.
But change comes slowly to those watching closely.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said months ago that the policy should be reviewed, and the White House is in favor of that review. But it hasn't happened so far.
"If not now, when is the right time?" Captain Sage Fox, U.S. Army Reserve, asked. "There's never a right time."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.