One year after military's transgender ban, Ohio man is undaunted, wants to serve his country

By SUSAN MILLER | USA Today | Published: April 12, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Nic Talbott always has been unshaken in his beliefs.

When he was growing up on a family farm in tiny Lisbon, Ohio, he recalls telling his best friend as a young child, “I was supposed to be a boy.”

In college at Kent State University, his passions clicked. He set his sights on a career in the military.

And as a string of presidential tweets in 2017 punctured his dreams of serving his country, his gut told him something else: “I need to fight … I need to make my voice be heard.”

Sunday marks one year since the Pentagon enacted its policy restricting the service of transgender troops, and Talbott, a transgender man, is as resolute as ever.

“I know I can do this; I just need to be given the chance,” said Talbott, one of the plaintiffs in four original legal cases challenging the transgender ban in court.

Each of the four cases secured preliminary injunctions blocking the ban. Four courts found both that the ban would cause harm and the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claims that the ban is unconstitutional. But in January 2019, the Supreme Court allowed the ban to take effect while the court challenges continued.

On March 17, a fifth case was filed. A naval officer, “Jane Doe,” who has served two extended tours of duty over nine years, said she is now facing involuntary discharge because she is transgender. It is the first challenge since the ban went into effect last April.

No court has yet to issue a final decision on the constitutionality of the policy.

- Ban plays into a ‘damaging stereotype’

The ban is detrimental on many levels, said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), who is representing Talbott and others in the case.

“The military is our nation’s largest employer. For transgender people across the country, it is their only path forward in terms of any kind of professional future,” Minter said.

The ban fuels “one of the worst and most damaging stereotypes: that transgender people are mentally unstable and unfit.”

The policy also impacts the military by excluding an entire group of qualified people, he said.

Indeed, top U.S. military leaders, such as Gen. Joseph Dunford, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have weighed in, saying transgender people should be allowed to serve.

Supporters of the ban cite medical costs in treating transgender-related issues. But a report by the nonpartisan RAND Corp. found that paying for transgender troops’ health care needs would amount to about $8 million per year and the consequences on military readiness would be negligible.

Data obtained by USA Today in February 2019 showed that the Pentagon spent nearly $8 million to treat more than 1,500 transgender troops since 2016, including 161 surgical procedures. Most were senior enlisted personnel, but there were 20 senior officers. Overall, the troops represented a fraction of the total military force at the time of 2.1 million.

Everyone who joins the military must meet general fitness requirements, Minter said. “That is what is so perverse about this policy. The only thing this policy does is exclude people who would otherwise meet those standards.”

- ‘This is exactly what I was feeling’

Talbott, now 26, felt “different” as a child, he said. “I wanted to roughhouse, I had short hair, I liked boys’ clothing. I wasn’t quite fitting in with the rest of the group.”

When he was a 12, he had a light-bulb moment when a friend said the word “transgender” to him and he looked up the meaning online. “It dawned on me, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what’s going on with me.’ This is exactly what I was feeling.”

At first, he was hesitant to tell friends. But when he did, he recalls the usual response: “ ‘Yeah, Nic, we have known that for years.’ ”

At 16, Talbott came out to his family. His mother took him to a therapist, who diagnosed him with gender dysphoria — a conflict between a person’s assigned birth gender and the gender with which they identify. He developed a transition plan with a doctor, and in 2012 began taking hormones.

- ‘Can you be transgender and in the military?’

Talbott always had an interest in the military, admiring family members who served. But his initial Google searches on “can you be transgender and in the military” led to a disappointing “No, you can’t,” he said.

In his last year as an undergrad at Kent State, a class kindled an interest in national security. “A professor pulled me aside and said, ‘Why aren’t you in the military. This is what you should do.’ ” Talbott explained that he was transgender, and the teacher said, “ ‘This is the stupidest reason’ ” not to enlist.

After graduation, Talbott contacted military recruiters, to no avail. Still, while he shifted between jobs as a bus driver, a delivery manager and a trucker, he held fast to his aspirations.

In June 2016, Talbott learned that the Obama administration had lifted a ban on military service by transgender people. “I contracted every recruiter I could talk to,” he said, and eventually chose the Air Force National Guard. He began the paperwork and the certification process and trained regularly for the physical exam.

His goals were on the cusp of reality.

- Presidential tweets a crushing blow

In July 2017, Talbott was at his job, driving a truck, when his best friend, who was riding as his partner, turned to him in dread after eyeing his cellphone.

“He said, ‘Nic, pull over; you don’t want to be driving when you hear this.’ ”

Rattled, Talbott found a rest stop and his friend read tweets from President Donald Trump touting a military transgender ban.

Talbott’s spirit was crushed.

“I remember thinking there is no way this could be true. He has to be kidding; this has to be fake,” he said. “I felt awful, absolutely deflated. It was something I wanted for a long time … suddenly ripped away in the blink of an eye.”

It was in that dark moment Talbott found the grit to not go quietly. “Even if, for some reason, this doesn’t work out for me … I still intend to do everything I can to get this ban lifted.”

A month later, the official word came down: Trump directed the military not to move forward with allowing transgender people to enlist.

- ‘Bigger than how it affects me’

In the year since the policy went into effect last April, Talbott is unflinching in his desire to serve his country — and he is doing everything to be ready.

While his lawsuit works its way through courts, his schedule is packed. Talbott is getting a master’s degree in global security at Kent State, he maintains a rigorous physical fitness regime, he helps out on the family farm, and he has worked as a substitute teacher.

When the coronavirus pandemic blew up in recent weeks and schools were closed, he started a job at Walmart.

Talbott has been overwhelmed by support; many former high school classmates are cheering him on.

“Nic could fit in anywhere. It didn’t matter what clique you put him in, he had friends everywhere,” said Lexi Elliott, a friend from their days in the school band. “His determination is something to be admired … and the fact that he is willing to put himself out there and to fight for what he believes in should tell you how hard he would fight for his country.”

Talbott never asked to be a role model, but he knows he could be carving a path for others with his challenge to the ban.

“This is bigger than how it affects me,” he said. “Look at all the evidence out there. Nothing about being transgender makes anyone less capable about military service.”

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