Trailblazing transgender midshipman navigates an uncertain path in wake of Trump's tweet
By MAIA SILBER | The Washington Post | Published: July 29, 2017
On Wednesday, a few hours after President Donald Trump announced, via Twitter, that he would ban transgender people from serving in the military, U.S. Naval Academy midshipman Regan Kibby drove to a nearby gym. In the locker room, he opened his bag and pulled out a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Navy" and the academy's mascot, Bill the Goat. Then he started to cry.
"I might not be able to say that anymore," Kibby, 19, says. "I might not be able to claim 'Navy.' "
Kibby has just finished his sophomore year at U.S.N.A. One year ago, he had told his company officer that he wanted to transition from his biological sex, female, to the gender with which he had long identified, male. After months of medical appointments, paperwork, and discussions up the chain of command, he became the first midshipman to receive clearance to transition while enrolled at the Academy. In less than a week, he would schedule his first hormone therapy appointment at a clinic near his home in Sophia, North Carolina.
If all went well, he would submit a formal request to change the designation of his gender in official records. If he demonstrated physical and emotional stability for 18 months, he would take his final exams, graduate, and receive a commission as an officer: a goal that he has dreamed of since childhood.
But then, the tweet. "Now, I replan my future," Kibby says.
On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that "the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military," citing the "tremendous" medical cost and "burden" that transgender individuals pose to the military.
It remains uncertain how that announcement will affect transgender individuals serving in the military. General Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the heads of the military branches that there would be no modifications to current policy until further direction was received from the president. It likewise remains unclear how the announcement will affect transgender cadets and midshipmen such as Kibby. When asked, a spokesman for the Pentagon referred The Washington Post to Dunford's statement.
Commander David McKinney, a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Academy, said that he does not yet know what the announcement will mean for the academy, or for Kibby.
Originally from San Diego, an area replete with Naval bases, Kibby had always seen the military as his obvious career choice. His father had served in the Navy, and Kibby enrolled in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in high school. The summer after his junior year there, he attended not one service-oriented summer program, but three, at the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Military Academy, and U.S. Air Force Academy.
"I felt if I could do it, I should," he says. "It felt like a duty." The only question was which academy he would ultimately attend: Kibby settled on the Navy's, because he felt a sense of comfort on the water.
But just as certain as Kibby felt about his future career, he also knew something else about himself. Since he was a child, he had simply not felt like a girl.
For a long time, Kibby didn't give that feeling a name. As a high school student, it wasn't that he didn't know what "transgender" meant, it was that he did: no academy, no career.
But in 2015, during Kibby's "plebe summer" - the intense training program for incoming freshmen at the academy - something happened. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the Pentagon would move to allow transgender people to serve openly. With that announcement, Kibby finally felt able to name the feeling that he had always had. He joined Navy Spectrum, an organization for LGBT midshipmen and their allies. He started identifying as transgender to a few members of the group, then to his roommates, and finally, in his second semester, to his company officer.
At first, Academy officials could only offer acceptance and support. But when the Pentagon officially announced last summer that transgender people could serve openly in the military, Kibby emailed his company officer and asked about the prospect of transitioning.
Kibby's company officer helped put him in contact with a medical officer, as the first step toward that process would likely be obtaining a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Finally, this past November, the Navy issued a directive outlining the protocol for service members, including midshipmen, to transition. Kibby would be the first (and so far only) midshipman at the Academy to go through that process. It would entail not only obtaining a diagnosis, but consulting with multiple mental health care providers, endocrinologists, and plastic surgeons, sending his case to the Transgender Care Team at Portsmouth's Naval Medical Center for review, and working with medical and legal teams to prepare an official request to take a medical leave-of-absence to transition. The Academy's commandant and superintendent approved that request in May, almost a year after Kibby had initially inquired about transitioning.
Kibby and the Academy were navigating this new process under a veil of uncertainty, following interim guidelines on a policy whose full implications were not yet clear. The military branches had yet to release protocols for what are known as "accessions," or the process of accepting new service members. Two cadets who came out as transgender - one while enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy and one at the U.S. Air Force Academy - graduated, but were denied commissions in May. In June, the Pentagon pushed back the deadline for developing an accession plan another six months. And since the 2016 presidential election, some advocates have expressed fear that transgender rights might be rolled back
Brynn Tannehill, a transgender Naval Academy alum and director of advocacy for the group SPARTA (Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All), offered Kibby the only advice she could. "Make yourself indispensable," she told Kibby. "You're going to have to work twice as hard to get the respect you deserve." Tannehill spoke from experience: After graduating, she served as a Naval aviator for ten years before retiring from service to transition, and to advocate on behalf of transgender service members.
Kibby followed Tannehill's advice: completing credits for a double major, playing the bagpipe for Pipes and Drums, taking on leadership positions in Spectrum. Days at the Academy begin with 7 a.m. formation and often don't end until past 2 a.m. There were moments when Kibby felt exhausted and discouraged, not knowing if all the appointments and consultations would ever come to anything. But he never thought about giving up. "I just thought I could fly under the radar, graduate, and serve my country like I always planned to," he says. And when his transition plan finally received approval, it all seemed worth it. He wouldn't have to make a choice between two fundamental parts of his identity.
He started searching for clinics that provide transgender services and that accept Tricare, the military's health insurance. He found one. He planned to schedule an appointment.
And then, on Wednesday, an email from a professor, offering comfort and support. Without asking what the professor meant, Kibby Googled "transgender military." He saw the tweet.
"It was devastating," Kibby says. "I'm very likely not going to be able to continue my education, the path that I planned for my life." No matter what happens, he'll continue with the transition process.
Without guidelines from the Pentagon, McKinney could not say whether Kibby would be allowed to return to the Academy or receive a commission. Spokesmen at the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy said that they did not know of any currently enrolled transgender cadets at their schools.
Riley Dosh, the transgender cadet who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in May, now feels little hope that she'll ever earn her commission.
Since graduating, she had been looking for work while awaiting clarification of accession policies that might allow her to earn her commission. "[The tweet] kind of signaled the end for me," she says. Right now, she's focusing on advocating for the transgender service members already on active duty.
As for Kibby? He went to the gym. Just like every other afternoon. "I'm still a member of the military," he says. "Right now, I'll keep my routine."