For transgender personnel in military, honesty can end careers
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.