Jake Eleazer returned to his Kentucky home just after 2 p.m. last Friday and opened the letter.
The letter told Eleazer, who serves in the Kentucky Army National Guard, that he was medically disqualified from serving. Eleazer is one of an estimated 15,450 transgender service members currently serving in various branches of the U.S. military, according to a recent study conducted by the Palm Center.
“I hope,” Eleazer said Tuesday, “that I am the last person to ever get a letter like that.”
About three hours later, Eleazer got what would become some good news. He learned that the U.S. Army had officially undertaken what many transgender advocates consider to be a historic shift in its policy toward transgender soldiers that could mirror the military’s acceptance of gays and lesbians earlier this decade.
The Army issued a directive that shifts the decision for dismissal to the service’s top civilian for personnel matters, a senior-level official, isolating and protecting transgender service members from decisions of mid-level officers. It could precede a full change in policy across branches that would lead to full inclusion of transgender troops.
On Monday, Eleazer said, the Army withdrew the memorandum informing him that he was medically disqualified from service. The new letter said his case would be reviewed at a later date.
“It was definitely crazy,” he said. “It had almost been back to normal — I was going to drill for about a year, and nobody really messed with me. And all of a sudden I got this [letter]. It came out of nowhere. I hadn’t been warned at all.
“It was crushing. Because I knew that folks had been trying to work on something. And I kept hoping, kept hoping, kept hoping that it would happen. And I said, well, I guess it just wasn’t going to be quick enough for me.”
Eleazer is perhaps the first test case in the military’s new policy. Both current and former transgender service members are hopeful that the shift will lead to broad inclusion of transgender troops across all branches of the military, removing medical barriers to a point where prospective recruits and current troops are not deemed unfit for service because of their gender.
Practically, the new policy removes many barriers for transgender soldiers. Officers will now have to detail to the senior-level official why they are trying to discharge a member, which veterans explained would be a risky move for career-minded officers. After then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates instituted a similar shift in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011, no further troops were discharged for being gay or lesbian.
But advocates still warn this should not be considered a final step — and that they want to see how it plays out.
“While transgender service members welcome this step, they recognize it is only a stopgap measure aimed at making a failing policy fail less,” said Allyson Robinson, a transgender former Army captain who is now the director of policy for SPARTA, a group of current and former LGBT service members.
“What they and their commanders need is a comprehensive, Department-level policy review,” she added.
Capt. Sage Fox experienced a process that resembled nearly the same highs and lows as Eleazer — with a different end result. After she was deployed to Kuwait in 2012, she took time off to begin the transitioning process.
Fox, who has served as an Army Reserve Officer for a period spanning 20 years, laid out her situation to her commanding officer. Her time off was wonderful, she said.
“Here’s the thing, though,” she recalls saying. “I’m legally female now!”
She was somewhat stunned when her officer said she’d be welcomed back, even after her transition. As she recalls, the officer told her that they could use her — plus, she’d have a good shot at winning a challenge of any potential discharge.
Two weeks later, however, she was even more stunned when the Army reversed her orders, assigned her to inactive-reserve duty, and told her not to come back for the time being. Fox said she is now working with the California National Guard as an LGBT liaison. She still cannot officially join because of the Army’s policy toward transgender individuals, but she’s hopeful the shift will offer her another couple of decades of service.
“I’d like to serve 20 more [years] if I could,” Fox said.
“I don’t think people are going to have to lie or hide anymore,” she added. “They can stand up and say, ‘I’m really female,’ or, ‘I’m really male.’ Stop freaking out about this! We don’t want any special treatment.”
One reason Fox and Eleazer are optimistic about a full review of the policy is because of new Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s answer to a question posed by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, a medical reserve officer who advocates on behalf of LGBT patients, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, last month. Carter said he was “very open-minded” about transgender individuals serving across branches of the military. Two days later, the White House said President Barack Obama agreed with his defense secretary’s comments.
Ehrenfeld himself has experienced the benefit of a long-standing policy change — he is a gay service member who joined when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect. When it was officially repealed, he was frustrated that transgender service members weren’t part of the equation. Based on the answer he got and the policy shift, he expects that day to finally come soon.
“It’s been much easier to serve since that has gone away,” Ehrenfeld said of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“It’s just the comfort of knowing that I can continue to do what I love.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.