When Dylan Kohere was in middle school, he boldly mapped his future, and the military was at its core.
For Nic Talbott, a college class on national security stirred an interest in intelligence.
Blaire McIntyre grew up with an “Army influence” from her stepmom rippling through her house.
All three carved life plans out of service to their country, never expecting they would one day be in the trenches in a battle right at home: as plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging the Pentagon’s military transgender ban.
The ban, overturned two weeks ago by President Joe Biden, has left a trail of dreams deferred, careers upended and lives in limbo. But its reversal also puts a spotlight on the grit of those who refused to give up – and the qualities that make them ideal candidates for the military.
“What we saw through the years was incredible courage and determination” by the members of the transgender community committed to military service, said Jennifer Levi, transgender rights project director for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders and co-counsel in the three cases.
“The public was able to see the tremendous contributions transgender people are capable of and have been making for so many years,” she said. The voices of those in the six lawsuits that challenged the policy “made clear how destabilizing it was for the military to be excluding people who meet the strict qualifications for service.”
Biden’s executive order comes after a tumultuous few years since President Donald Trump tweeted intentions to reinstate a ban on transgender military service in 2017, a policy President Barack Obama repealed a year earlier.
Biden’s order prohibits discrimination against troops based on their gender identity and requires the Pentagon to report its progress within 60 days. Troops will receive medically required treatment for transition; discharge records will be reviewed.
‘My window was closed. There was no more I could do.’
While Biden’s actions opened floodgates of relief and hope for the transgender community, lives for many have forever shifted.
Kohere, who came out as transgender his first year in high school, was just 18 and navigating his first year at the University of New Haven in Connecticut when he became a plaintiff in the first lawsuit against the Trump-era ban. He had hoped to enroll in the Army’s ROTC, eager for the corps’ leadership and educational opportunities and the chance to compete for scholarships.
While Kohere was able to take academic ROTC classes for two years in college, he was blocked from any physical training. “It pretty much got to a point where they would not let me be involved because of my gender,” he said. As a sophomore he had to accept the hard reality that he would not be able to fully enroll in ROTC, and his military aspirations were over. “My window was closed,” he said. “There was no more I could do.”
The disappointment was tough, recalls Kohere, now 21. To have his life plan “ripped out from underneath me took a lot of mental rebalancing to figure out who I was and where I was meant to go. It took a mental toll.”
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But Kohere soon found his footing when he thought about why the lawsuit held such significance to him – and he shifted gears. “I just realized my passion is very strong in finding a way to help others” through LGBTQ advocacy, he said.
After Kohere graduates with a degree in criminal justice this year he is considering continuing his education with a legal studies program that would enable a life of service for the LGBTQ community.
Out of the darkness, something suddenly clicked. “There’s a certain amount of pride to finally figure out something about yourself,” he said.
Fighting ban ‘the most important thing I have ever done in my life’
Talbott’s unbending desire for a military career has endured many highs and lows. After graduation from Kent State University in 2015, contacts with military recruiters went nowhere. Talbott, a transgender man, tended to his grandmother’s farm in Lisbon, Ohio, and took jobs as a bus driver, trucker and delivery manager.
He was overjoyed when Obama lifted the ban on service in 2016 and was able to begin the training and certification process for the Air Force National Guard – a goal that would soon be shattered by Trump’s tweet.
Talbott remained undaunted. He continued his education, joined a suit challenging the ban, committed to a strict physical fitness routine, taught school and picked up other odd jobs.
“I have just been pushing forward the whole time,” he said.
Talbott waited with nervous anticipation when Biden was elected, confident the new president would keep a vow to rescind the ban.
When the moment came on Jan. 25, Talbott had to stop midsentence during a phone call and catch his breath: “I was absolutely thrilled, so excited, so overwhelmed.”
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Talbott will be getting his graduate degree at Kent State in criminology and global security in the fall and is considering a Ph.D. He plans to re-enroll in ROTC and has already had military recruiters reach out with potential offers.
But his biggest thrill will be again donning his uniform. “I remember the first time,” he said. “I felt so proud of my accomplishments up to that point. Putting it on again is a testament to everything I put into this fight for the past several years.”
Talbott, 27, is keenly aware of the bigger picture. Being a plaintiff in one of the suits gave him a cherished opportunity to help the trans community – and the military, he said. “It became the most important thing I have ever done in my life,” he said.
Mixed emotions, but keeping faith in the future
As a child rooted in military culture, McIntyre chomped MREs for fun, relished camping trips. In high school she struggled with gender dysphoria, and by her 20s she turned to the Army for another reason: to silence her identity issues. “I thought the Army would be good for me because this was probably just a phase,” she said. “It would give me discipline and structure.”
McIntyre enlisted in 2009. By 2010 she was serving in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne, a distinguished light infantry division of the Army known as the “Screaming Eagles,” specializing in air assault operations.
“You had to become a proficient soldier very fast,” she recalled. In combat zones, the camaraderie and connection with fellow soldiers “really made the military something special.”
But as she watched LGBTQ servicemembers during those “don’t ask, don’t tell” days she again tried to quiet her identity struggles. “It made me go deeper into hiding who I was,” she said.
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In 2015, McIntyre joined the Michigan Army National Guard.
And in 2019, she came out as a transgender woman and informed her commanding officer.
McIntrye, now 33, is married with two young children. She is on duty two weeks per year and one weekend per month. When not on Guard duty, she works as a uniformed civilian National Guard employee specializing in armament.
Because McIntyre must maintain her Guard membership to keep her civilian employment, she found herself “panicking all the time” that Trump’s ban would mean her house, her career, her lifelines could slip away.
Last October, she filed suit against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her top military official. The fear of discharge and turmoil through the months made for emotional whiplash. On the weekends and at night, “I am who I am supposed to be,” she said. “But every day (at work) I have to go back to before my transition to being a male. It’s a mental mind game of flipping back and forth.”
Biden’s order has left McIntyre, who has dropped her suit, with mixed emotions: she cried tears of joy, yet she is trying to stay reserved until the final policy on transgender military service is explicitly spelled out.
McIntyre remains humbled by the experience even as the power of her voice continues to resonate. A transgender individual recently reached out, telling McIntyre they were in tears when they saw her on the news – and felt hope stir for the first time.
“They told me ‘my chain of command is working with me now. It’s all thanks to you.”‘