SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — This year, there have been major shifts in policy for transgender men and women in the military. This affects the more than 134,000 transgender veterans and 15,000 transgender service members actively serving in the ranks.
President Biden reversed an executive order put in place by President Trump to allow transgender soldiers to openly serve in the military.
Additionally, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs announced the VA will allow veterans and active service members to get sex reassignment surgery under VA healthcare plans.
Staff Sergeant Leanne Withrow, the only openly transgender member of the Illinois National Guard, is now advocating to make these protections into law.
Withrow has been serving since 2010. She now works in the communications department, documenting service members’ missions around the world. She’s been deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Jordan, Korea, and all over the United States.
She never thought serving others would help her learn about herself.
“It was during this deployment and talking with some friends. A friend of mine had actually told me, ‘Hey, I'm transitioning,’” said Withrow. “It kind of hit me like lightning. I was like, ‘Wow, this really answers all these questions I've had all these years.'"
After serving for six years, she realized she wanted to transition.
“I didn't realize that most guys didn't wake up going ‘Darn, I woke up as a guy again.’ I just thought people thought that,” she said.
Her transition took years.
“I came out in mid-2016 to the Army. I didn't actually start hormones until 2018,” she said.
Shortly after she came out at work, President Trump put a ban in place, stopping transgender service members from joining the military.
“The Obama-era policy went into effect. Literally, less than a year later, President Trump tweeted, you know, you don't belong in the Army, and it was extremely demoralizing for me, someone who, I love the Army,” said Withrow.
But she didn’t let that slow her down. Withrow joined the nonprofit SPARTA to advocate for laws protecting trans service members’ right to be in the military. She now serves as the organization’s communications director.
“It’s like a human rights issue, so we push really, really hard because we know how much it sucks to live in that closet,” said Withrow.
But this year, there was progress. President Biden reversed the ban.
“We can serve, but the job's not done until there's legal protections,” said Withrow.
In June, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the VA will start the process of allowing sex reassignment surgeries to be covered under healthcare plans.
“That's a big deal,” said Withrow. “Because it's not elective surgery. It's not cosmetic surgery. It's medically necessary,” said Withrow.
Many critics of these policy changes do not support taxpayer dollars going to pay for these hormone therapies and reassignment surgeries, but Withrow said these changes will only help more soldiers do their jobs even better.
“You can't have both, right? So, you can serve, but you don't get the benefits of a soldier that's serving? You can serve, but you have to buy your own uniform? It's, it's kind of silly, and it's lip service,” said Withrow.
Withrow said these surgeries are a lifeline to those willing to sacrifice everything for their country and something many private insurance companies and Medicare cover.
“It's crucial that we get adequate medical care because people will point out that, ‘Oh, trans people have a higher rate of suicide.’ Well, that rate goes down if they have a support network. That rate goes down if they have medically necessary care,” said Withrow.
She knows this will take time for the nation to accept as it did for people to accept her. Because even though policies are becoming more inclusive, it may take years for culture to change.
“There’s hard work, and there's time. This young generation gives me hope that in 20 years when they're the old crusty soldiers and sailors and they've been in for a career and they're teaching young troops," she said. "I know what they're going to be teaching them, and that gives me courage."
If you’d like to connect with SPARTA or access the resources they provide, click HERE.