ROTC student takes on transgender military ban
By SUSAN MILLER | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 5, 2017
A passion for patriotism has been a constant coursing through Dylan Kohere’s short life.
When he was in the sixth grade, dreams of a military career started to crystallize. In high school, he weighed enlisting after graduation.
The Mount Olive Township, N.J., native eventually decided the smartest path would be college and enrollment in the Army's Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
Military service is “the thing I wanted to do, hoped to do my entire life,” he said.
But now Kohere, 18, is on the front lines in a battle he never imagined — as a plaintiff in the first lawsuit challenging President Trump’s directive to reinstate a ban on transgender people serving in the military, a ban that could crush the college freshman’s aspirations.
Late Wednesday, Trump administration lawyers requested that the lawsuit be dismissed, sayng it's too early for courts to block a ban since no policy changes will be effective until at least after January.
The brief also stated that no plaintiffs face a "current or imminent threat" of harm.
For Kohere, the impact of a potential ban is already taking a toll.
“I worked for years to become physically able and ready enough to serve,” said Kohere in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY. “To be told I couldn’t simply because of how I identify was really frustrating.”
Kohere, who came out as transgender his first year in high school, is only a few months beyond orientation at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Conn. Instead of dealing with the ebbs and flows of the freshman experience, he is mired in uncertainty over whether he will be able to complete his ROTC program or enter the military.
“Dylan has a tremendously powerful voice,” said Jennifer Levi, transgender rights project director for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD). "His example makes it obvious how deep and scarring this ban could be.”
A tweet and outrage
Transgender troops have been able to serve openly since the Obama administration lifted a ban in 2016.
But in July, Trump said via Twitter — and then in an order to the Pentagon — that he intended to overturn that policy. The U.S. military, he said, “must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
The order outraged LGBT activists and caught many by surprise, including military officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis later said that transgender troops will be allowed to continue serving pending the results of a study by a panel of experts.
Supporters of a ban point to the medical costs. But a report by the non-partisan RAND Corp. found that paying for transgender troops’ health care needs would amount to about $8 million a year and the consequences on military readiness would be negligible.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and GLAD answered quickly. The groups filed the first suit Aug. 9 (other suits have been filed since) on behalf of five transgender service members with nearly 60 years of combined service. Kohere and a U.S. Naval Academy midshipman joined the suit as plaintiffs Aug. 31.
GLAD and NCLR will respond to the latest motions in court later this month.
"Rather than even attempting to defend it, the DOJ is asking the court to turn a blind eye to the devastation the president has caused in the lives of real people and real families,” Shannon Minter, NCLR’s legal director, said in response to Wednesday's court filing.
Declarations by former top U.S. military officials from all branches of the service have added heft to the suit, Minter said.
“It is very powerful to see senior military leaders weigh in,” Minter said. “It’s not something they do lightly. That is indicative of how concerned they are about this issue. ... Never before in our nation’s history has a president attacked a group of currently serving troops.”
A face on the issue
There are more than 15,000 transgender people serving in the military today, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, and about 134,000 U.S. veterans are transgender.
Minter notes that the U.S. military has “a long history of eliminating categorical bans and discrimination” such as with African-Americans and women. If the transgender ban becomes policy, it will be “a shocking turn of events for the military.”
Kohere puts a face on a potential casualty of a ban: young people determined to join the armed forces.
“It is heartbreaking to see Dylan at such a young age in a terrible situation for no reason,” Minter said. “Why in the world wouldn’t the president and U.S. military want to welcome and embrace an idealistic, young person who wants nothing more than to serve his country?”
Many young people enlist as a “route to stability,” Minter said. Others come from families with deep military traditions.
And many take the ROTC route. “There are many more Dylans out there,” he said.
Today’s Army ROTC has 275 programs at colleges and universities throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and Guam and an enrollment of more than 30,000, according to the U.S. Army Cadet Command. More than 40% of current active-duty Army officers were commissioned through the ROTC.
A transgender ban would “create a huge, destructive mess” on campuses, Minter said, thrusting schools back into the don’t ask/don’t tell era.
A ban would also conflict with states that have laws prohibiting bias based on gender identity and could lead to the demise of ROTC programs that did not want to be forced to embrace discriminatory practices, Minter said.
Army Maj. Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman, said he could not speak to the specific desires of colleges and universities or the future of their ROTC programs.
But “until the policy review process is complete, we will adhere to current (transgender) policy,” Eastburn said.
'The light bulb went off'
Kohere loved going camping and doing other “guy” things with his two older brothers when he was a kid. “I always wanted to do what the Boy Scouts did even though I was in the Girl Scouts.”
Still, “I never thought of myself as a guy trapped inside a girl’s body. I never had a concept of gender.”
People accepted his gender non-conformity, he said, until middle school when he was bullied.
In high school Kohere had what he calls “an epiphany.” He became a member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and at his very first GSA meeting transgender issues were discussed.
“That’s pretty much where the light bulb went off,” Kohere said. “I was no longer confused about being myself.”
Danielle Kay, Kohere's GSA adviser at Mount Olive High School, recalls a student with lots of "tenacity" who eventually became president of the group and shined as a role model and leader who other students admired.
Kohere would be an ideal candidate for service, Kay said. "He is a protector, the kind of person who is always looking out for others. ... Dylan's voice is the voice of a generation of young adults, LGBTQ+ and everything in between, who are often discredited or labeled as lazy and apathetic."
'Look at me as a person'
Kohere’s two grandfathers served in World War II, and while their service played a part in the appeal of the armed forces, he chose his career path “on my own.”
Even though he was just a tot when 9/11 shook the country, reverberations through the years cemented an enduring respect for the U.S. military. “I grew up being protected for 18 years of my life,” he said. “I feel obligated to return the favor. I have always been a very patriotic person.”
Kohere felt “anger and frustration” when he first learned of Trump’s tweet and it began to sink in that his dreams could be derailed — especially after being so thrilled a year earlier when he learned transgender people could serve openly, he said.
“I am fully capable,” Kohere said. “I can do the push-ups, run the miles, do the sit-ups.”
Kohere said he is working with doctors on a treatment plan for his transition, one that should be complete long before he graduates from college and paid for by his parents’ health insurance.
But his future still hangs in the balance. At risk, he said: leadership training and educational opportunities unique to ROTC, the chance to compete for military scholarships that could cover tuition and living expenses — and the ultimate plan, a career in the military.
Kohere, who lives in ROTC housing, calls his sergeant and fellow cadets “fantastic people. They have had my back since the beginning.”
Despite the dark cloud Kohere is under, Levi said the college freshman is optimistic: “He believes in the America Dream. … He believes there is a better path forward.”
If he could meet the president, “I would tell him to look at me as a person,” Kohere said.
“I identify as an American; it’s always been that way. I still want to fight for my country.”