There are roughly 15,500 transgender individuals serving in the United States Armed Forces, according to .
That’s more people than the number of active Navy personnel and civilian employees that make up the entire base of . Yet, they don’t always have the same protections as their fellow enlisted colleagues.
“We have to get this over the finish line and get service by transgender individuals protected by law,” said LeAnne Withrow, the communications director for SPARTA, a national advocacy organization for transgender military members.
Withrow, who identifies as transgender herself, says the group formed after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Withrow explained that while this protected openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members, it did not offer any specific support for those who identify as transgender.
“They kind of left us behind,” she said. “SPARTA formed out of this recognition that we weren’t done. The mission was not complete until we were all going to be welcome in military service.”
But according to SPARTA, there have always been transgender members in the United States Military.
The first was believed to have joined in 1861, .
Albert Cashier, who was given the birth name Jennie Irene Hodger, enlisted in the 95th Illinois Infantry and fought for the Union during the Civil War. While the term did not exist at that time, scholars consider Cashier to be the first transgender service member.
Today, the Williams Institute’s research says that transgender men and women make up less than 1% of the armed forces. Yet, 21% of transgender people have served – a higher percentage than most demographics.
“I think part of it has to do with wanting to prove something to yourself or wanting to deny something in yourself,” said Withrow. “And there’s just a lot of understanding of the perspective of the underdog and understanding struggle that comes with being trans, and I think that that lends itself toward service.”
Of the 15,500 transgender service members, it’s estimated that less than 10 are stationed within the Hampton Roads area. One of them is Staff Sergeant William Allen-Rowles. Sergeant Allen-Rowles is a UH-60 Alpha Lima Mike Instructor stationed at Fort Eustis.
“I joined as Amy Elizabeth Rowles,” he said. “I was female when I joined the military in 2015.”
But it wasn’t until 2016 that Sergeant Allen-Rowles started the transition process.
“When I came out to my mother in December of 2016, I’ll never forget it. I was petrified to tell her, even though she’s been supportive my whole entire life,” he explained. “And she said, ‘I waited for you to tell me.’ So it was like a relief off my shoulders when I was able to reveal my authentic self to her.”
But living authentically has only recently been an option for transgender members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and their future remains uncertain.
In 2016, The Obama Administration lifted the ban on transgender people’s ability to serve. But just one year later, the ban was reinstated by former President Donald Trump, and fear washed over the entire community.
“I didn’t know what my future was going to be like. I just wanted to serve my country,” said Sergeant Allen-Rowles. “My chain of command pulled me into the office. That was the first thing they did. And they asked me [if I’m okay]. That meant the world to me because they saw me first.”
It wasn’t until 2021, just two years ago, that the ban was lifted once again, allowing transgender individuals to serve openly. But without an official law being passed, their ability to serve still remains in limbo.
“I’d like to see a policy come in that says I can serve openly,” said Sergeant Allen-Rowles. “What happens when the next administration comes in? And maybe there’s another ban in place… what happens? You know, that’s the fear that we always live in.”
A fear that Sergeant Allen-Rowles says he is able to live with due to the support of his fellow soldiers.
The Black Hawk maintainer still has memories of his brother, Sergeant Major General Joshua Prescott, taking him to the gym so he could meet the Army’s prior male standards for physical fitness.
“There was a significant difference in run time and push-ups,” he explained.
Then, a few years later, Sergeant Allen-Rowles’ brother pinned him to Sergeant in Operation Atlantic Resolve.
“I think that’s my favorite memory in the military,” he explained. “The look on his face, and he was so proud of me.”
That moment came only after hours of interviews and loads of paperwork to be officially considered a male by the U.S. Army. Sergeant Allen-Rowles had his gender marker changed in September of 2018: two years after he began the transition process.
“I had to abide by all female regulations and standards until my gender marker was changed,” said Sergeant Allen-Rowles. “When I was able to receive that gender marker as male, it’s another favorable moment in my military career…for my chain of command and my peers to recognize me as me.”
Withrow says getting someone’s gender marker changed within the military can be a lengthy and complicated process.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “The requirements still include multiple letters from mental health professionals, a treatment plan that’s signed and approved, and then followed, a memorandum requesting a gender marker change, and your new birth certificate that’s been corrected. And then once all of that is submitted, then it goes into the Army’s personnel system. And then it can be processed.”
She added that getting a gender change on a birth certificate can also be harder depending on what state the service member lives in.
Sergeant Allen-Rowles says he is grateful to his colleagues and peers for being supportive as he underwent this process.
“There is a process where I have to have my hormones checked for testosterone levels,” he explained. “At the time, I was taking injections, which were every two weeks. But for my Operation Atlantic Resolve mission, I had to switch to topicals. So I worked with my chain of command…that’s what your chain of command does, they take care of you.”
Now, Sergeant Allen-Rowles says he is able to serve openly and authentically, something he believes only improves his ability to serve the United States.
“When something’s hindering you mentally, you’re not able to focus on the mission,” he explained. “Now that I’ve transitioned, I kind of get [people] to understand my work ethic first and the kind of person I am and that I’m here for the mission. And then I’ll reveal to them that I’m transgender. And some of them will be in shock.”
When Sergeant Allen-Rowles was asked if being able to serve authentically makes him a better soldier, he responded, “Absolutely.”
He also hopes to serve as a catalyst for change within the entire LGBTQ+ community.
“I feel like I’ve changed a lot of minds and the perception of transgender soldiers,” he said. “I hope I inspire someone to say, ‘Okay, it’s time for me to join the military.'”
For those looking to connect with other Transgender service members, or are looking for support surrounding being a transgender member of the military,