It felt like the pinnacle of his career, working the graveyard shift in a windowless plywood facility in Afghanistan, monitoring a Special Operations mission as it unfolded in real time on grainy video feeds.
After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars training Landon Wilson to intercept communications, the U.S. military was capitalizing on its investment in the young sailor, already regarded as a rising star in a critical, highly technical field.
But shortly after 2 a.m. on Dec. 7, when a superior tapped him on the back and summoned him outside, one of the secrets that mattered most to Wilson began to unravel.
“This Navy record says female, but this paper says male,” the grim-faced sergeant major noted, displaying two sets of personnel records. “So, what are you?”
After an awkward pause, Wilson, who joined the Navy as a woman but who has long felt like a man, provided the answer that set in motion the end of his military career: “I am male.”
More than two years after the repeal of the law that barred gay men and lesbians from serving in the military openly, transgender service members can still be dismissed from the force without question, the result of a decades-old policy that dates back to an era when gender nonconformity was widely seen as a mental illness.
The policy, however, is now coming under scrutiny as service members like Wilson become more visible. Transgender service members are increasingly undergoing procedures to align their bodies more closely with the genders with which they identify. Medical experts, meanwhile, are urging the Defense Department to rescind a policy they view as discriminatory and outdated, noting that some of America’s closest allies, including Canada, Britain and Australia, have done so seamlessly.
Although the American Psychiatric Association revised its manual last year to indicate gender nonconformity is “not in itself a mental disorder,” the Defense Department relies on guidelines that describe transgender individuals as sexual deviants, and their condition as a “paraphilia.” Thousands of transgender men and women are now serving in the military while remaining in the closet, according to studies.
“It is a terrible tragedy our people are facing in our great country for no other reason than the fact that they want to express their gender,” said Joycelyn Elders, a former U.S. surgeon general who last year co-chaired a study that recommended the military lift its ban on transgender personnel. “We could find no credible medical reason for why transgender persons should be discharged or not allowed in the service.”
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Wilson, 24, was born in Warner Robins, a small city in central Georgia that revolved around the namesake Air Force base. An only child raised by a single mother, he recalls feeling he had been assigned the wrong sex as early as infancy.
“Hey, I’m a boy,” he recalls blurting out to his mother as a 4-year-old. “The reaction I got was one that even at that young age made me aware that that was not what you were supposed to feel like. So I suppressed it for as long as I could.”
As a teenager, Wilson carried himself as a “masculine female,” wearing men’s clothes and keeping his hair cropped short. A military career appealed to him for the honor that comes with service. But there was another draw, one that researchers say explains why the percentage of transgender people in the U.S. military is twice as high as it is in the civilian population.
“It comes down to the masculinity of it all,” Wilson explained. Men struggling with their temptation to transition to women have told researchers that they see military culture as a barrier to keep them from taking the daunting step. In the reverse scenario, Wilson said, it’s an easy environment to fit into. “But I think a lot of people look to the military for a new beginning,” he added.
As he enlisted, he was urged to become a cryptologic technician. By Wilson’s estimate, the Navy spent at least a half-million dollars getting him the highest-level security clearance in government and training him for an intelligence job that involves intercepting and analyzing communications from foreign governments and extremists.
He developed a reputation as a talented, meticulous, hard-working sailor, said Shayne Allen, a former colleague who was stationed with Wilson at the Navy Information Operations Command in Hawaii.
“Landon was someone who you don’t see a lot of in the military these days,” Allen said. “He not only checked all the boxes, but went above and beyond.”
During his time in Hawaii, Wilson earned several awards and accolades for his work. In a unit of roughly 10,000 sailors, he was recognized as the performer of the quarter in 2012 and the enlisted sailor of the quarter in 2013.
A few months after arriving in Hawaii in May 2012, having read up extensively on the issue and connected online with others who had transitioned, Wilson decided to act. He obtained a formal diagnosis of gender identity disorder from a counselor, a step transgender people often take before undergoing hormone therapy. In November, shortly after coming out to his mother, Wilson began taking hormones once a week - which he described as terrifying and exhilarating.
“I knew everything that was on the table, but at the same time it was completely worth it,” he said. “It was like taking my first breath.”
The effects were almost immediate for Wilson. The injections deepened his voice and molded his face structure and body shape. His muscles and strength grew, along with light facial hair. Because the therapy triggers a process similar to puberty, it also brought about severe acne.
The onset of his transformation came as gay men and lesbians in the military were starting to reap the benefits of the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the federal law that barred them from serving openly. The change - which had no bearing on transgender service members - offered a slight relief for Wilson, whom many mistook for a lesbian. But he also felt a degree of resentment.
“I knew that the lesbian and gay community were getting all these freedoms and all their privileges,” he said. “There was still that silent T that was completely ignored.”
Although transgender service members were avid supporters of the repeal, activists who led the effort were careful not to inject the plight of transgender service members into the debate.
“There was a certain reticence to discuss it in any official way with stakeholders for fear of complicating the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said Allyson Robinson, a former Army officer and transgender activist. “There was a very clear awareness among all the organizations that worked on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that this issue was going to remain outstanding.”
Colleagues noticed Wilson’s physical changes, but no one seemed to care. He confided in a few people in the military last year, including Allen.
“I said, no harm no foul there,” the 20-year-old said in a phone interview, describing his reaction. “To me you’ve always been Wilson, whether you’re a male or a female.”
That distinction became strikingly blurred last summer when Wilson volunteered for a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. When he arrived at a Navy medical processing center in Virginia, he was assigned to male barracks and given male uniforms on the first day. That afternoon, medical personnel noticed paperwork indicating a female and ordered a pregnancy test, but inexplicably kept him housed and clothed as a man.
“I was like, all right, this is going to get very awkward once they see something,” he remembers thinking.
Later that summer, when Wilson arrived to a base in South Carolina for combat training, he again was assigned to male barracks. Wilson’s deployment paperwork started reflecting the gender everyone from that point forward assumed him to be. And because his former name, which he has since changed legally, is androgynous, no one asked questions. The men who shared his living quarters assumed he was a man. Wilson said that all the shower facilities he used after basic training included private shower stalls.
The three weeks he spent in there were among the happiest in his life, Wilson said, as he rambled through the woods wearing heavy body armor and carrying weapons, just one of the boys.
“It felt like being part of this brotherhood that you hear about so often when you talk about the military,” he said. “It was invaluable.”
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On Nov. 16, he was put to work just hours after arriving in Afghanistan. During 12-hour night shifts that began at 4 p.m., he was responsible for intercepting communications by militants in order to guide Special Operations troops carrying out missions. For the first time in his career, the intelligence he was gathering was being put to immediate use and resulting in constant expressions of gratitude. Feeling indispensable in a critical job, Wilson started worrying less about being discovered.
“At that point, I had no concerns about it,” he said. “I felt confident about my ability to do my job and I was hopeful that would be enough if everything did come out. That that would be enough to stay.”
The secret was exposed in late November when Wilson’s commanders in Afghanistan spoke to his superiors in Hawaii to make arrangements for a promotion he was due. Officials in Hawaii used female pronouns to refer to Wilson, while their counterparts at Bagram were referring to a male petty officer third class.
“My Afghanistan leadership was like, ‘I have no idea who you are talking about,’ “ Wilson said. “We don’t have a female with that last name. I think you have the wrong shop.”
After Wilson came clean, commanders in Afghanistan decided to send him home. Within six hours, he was packed and loaded onto a plane. As the sun rose that morning, his prevailing concern was who would fill his slot inside the ramshackle intelligence fusion cell.
“My main concern was not: I could potentially be losing my career, but what about the guys on the ground,” he said, noting that there was no one else on base trained to do the job.
On the flight home, he was surrounded by war-weary troops elated about the thought of seeing loved ones back home and indulging in the comforts of life in America. Wilson wanted nothing more than to go back to war.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone,” he said. “I have no idea what they told people.”
When he arrived in Hawaii a few days later, his commanders promoted him. Weeks later, he received a commendation letter from Vice Admiral Jan Tighe, who oversaw his unit. Superiors were respectful and at times seemed apologetic, said Wilson, who recalls a sergeant major telling him: “You know, we are overreacting because we have no idea what to do with you.”
After weeks of deliberations, a military lawyer gave Wilson a choice: “You can transition, or you can serve,” the sailor said he was told.
That wasn’t a choice to Wilson, who soon signed his honorable discharge papers and left Hawaii.
A Navy spokesman said that officials in Wilson’s command did not wish to be interviewed about the sailor’s ordeal. “Petty Officer Wilson served honorably,” Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello said in an email.
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, said the Defense Department does not know how many service members have been discharged for being transgender. She said the Pentagon has no plan to change its medical qualification standards based on the changes to the psychiatric association’s entry on gender disorder, but she noted that medical policies are being constantly reviewed.
“In doing these reviews, the department considers that service members must serve in austere environments, many of which make necessary and ongoing treatments related to sex reassignment and many other conditions untenable,” she said in an emailed statement.
Since he was discharged a month ago, Wilson has been sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Manhattan. Having kept his security clearance, he could easily return to the same line of work for an intelligence agency or even the Pentagon, as a civilian. But he yearns to wear the uniform again.
“The military gave me the backbone to transition, to be who I am, because they look so fondly on honor and courage and all those things you have to have to be fully authentic,” he said. “I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am today without that.”