‘Why not me?’ After years denied by the trans military ban, the door finally opens

by Ryan Karnoski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 27 January 2021 16:00 GMT

Ryan Karnoski, 26, can now serve in the military as a social worker after President Biden's trans military ban reversal HANDOUT/Ester Karnoski

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For years, an arbitrary ban stood in the way of my military career – just because I’m trans. Now I can serve

By Ryan Karnoski

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Military service has been a goal of mine for a long time. Quite a few members of my family have served in either the army or the navy.

I’ve always had this attitude of: well, why not me? If there’s a job that needs to be done, I think it’s a really commendable thing to step up and answer that call.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I experienced the loss of a cousin who was serving as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. He was married and had a young son.

His death was the first exposure I had to the depth of the sacrifices that military service members make when they volunteer for a job that entails enormous personal risk.

This risk isn’t just faced by them, but by their families as well.

It was his death that opened my eyes to how privileged of a world I was living in. Neither of my parents served. I didn’t grow up on a military base or otherwise exposed to the stresses posed by military family life.

While I was in graduate school, the Barack Obama administration introduced policy to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military.

I contacted a recruiter to discuss my own goals for applying to join the military as a social worker.

Shortly thereafter, Donald Trump issued a series of tweets ordering a ban on transgender troops. It felt bizarre and dystopian that the president of the United States would have such a baseless bone to pick regarding transgender military service.

That was when I contacted Lambda Legal about what it might look like to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit to challenge the ban in court.

I transitioned when I was 19.  Now, at 26, I’m a husband, a PhD student, a clinical social worker, and an instructor at University of California, Berkeley.

Outside of this lawsuit, I forget that I’m trans a lot of the time. Sometimes it feels like it’s something that’s almost in the past. I’ve essentially lived my entire adult life as male.

When people think of the military they tend to think of riflemen or Navy SEALs, but there’s also a need for military social workers.

Social workers have a diverse skillset that makes us ideal people for working in difficult environments, doing things like mental health assessments or triaging with other healthcare personnel.

While the ban was in place, I felt really frustrated that – here I am, I’m in great physical shape, I’m mentally healthy, I’m working on a PhD.

I would think that I would be exactly the kind of person the military is looking for, other than being trans.

When I reflect on the effects of the “trans ban” on my own life, I wonder where I might be if things hadn’t played out the way they have.

I feel a sense of grief when I think of the amount of anguish and senseless strife that so many people went through as their dreams and goals were deferred, or worse, outright denied.

It is an enormous relief to know the ban has been lifted once again, and this chapter has decisively closed. It gives me a lot more hope about what my options are for my future.

Now, I know that when I do apply, I can be judged based on my merit as a candidate, and not based on an irrelevant, immutable characteristic about myself.

(Reporting by Jack Graham. Editing by Tom Finn (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly)

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