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No Longer Living 'In A Gray Area' Under Military Transgender Ban


Earlier this week, the Pentagon made a historic and controversial decision to officially lift its ban on transgender people serving openly in the U.S. military.


ASH CARTER: Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.

SUAREZ: Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the move will ensure the military has access to the widest pool of talent. No longer will those who are transgender automatically be considered medically unfit for military service. The move benefits some 15,000 transgender service members who can now serve openly without fear of being discharged.

The news is a long time coming for Sergeant Kennedy Ochoa. Ochoa is an Army drill sergeant who came out publicly last year as transgender. He joins us from Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Welcome to the program.

KENNEDY OCHOA: Thank you for having me.

SUAREZ: Now, as I mentioned, you're currently on active duty. Until the secretary's announcement, what rules governed your service? Did the Army still insist on classifying you for purposes of uniform, for your quarters on base as a woman?

OCHOA: Yes. I was not permitted to change my gender in any sort of military personnel system despite very obviously being read as male, and even having civilian documentation change, I still was not permitted to do that. So it was frustrating to say the least because I was in a gray area and in limbo, and ultimately even though when I came out and I was embraced with a multitude of support, it was like feeling like one foot was still stuck in quicksand.

So it was incredibly frustrating, and there were days where I just fell physically drained. It was - it's been a long time coming, and I can't even describe the emotion that I feel knowing that now the ban has been repealed.

SUAREZ: Were you frank? Were you able to be frank with your direct superiors?

OCHOA: There wasn't ever really a time, I guess, that I came out and said I identify as transgender until I came out publicly last year. The subtle - well, I guess not-so-subtle changes that occurred such as my voice dropping, my face shape changing. It was sort of obvious, I guess, that people kind of knew what was going on, but I never really actually said anything.

SUAREZ: Tell me a little bit more about your story. When did you join the military and at that time, were you already - well, in the process of coming clear to yourself about yourself?

OCHOA: I joined the military in 2010, and this was before the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, so at that time, no, I was nowhere near any sort of transition really. In March 2014, I changed my name and six months later, I began hormone replacement therapy. You know, I waited that long, and I just couldn't afford to wait any longer. I didn't want to put off feeling inner peace any longer than I had to.

SUAREZ: It must have been difficult to make a choice where you knew you could be putting your military service in jeopardy.

OCHOA: Absolutely. And that was just a daily conflict. It was consuming my thoughts almost every minute of the day. And I remember feeling it's like, well, at the end of the day, you know, when I am off work, I'm stuck with myself. And so I determined that I would be more effective at performing my daily duties in the Army if I were to serve authentically and be myself.

SUAREZ: Is there anyone in the military who has given you any trouble about this?

OCHOA: To my knowledge, no. I've been met with nothing but support, and I've been very fortunate to have been met with that. It was something that I worried that I wasn't going to have when I came out publicly last year. There are so many individuals out there who before this announcement felt like that they couldn't even be themselves remotely and were just so afraid to even talk about it. And so I felt that by stepping forward and sharing my truth, I hope I was able to empower them in some sort of way.

SUAREZ: I understand you've recently completed the Drill Sergeants program. Let me check this - is it true that you'll be the first known transgender drill sergeant in America? That must be quite an honor.

OCHOA: To my knowledge, yes, you know, if there is somebody out there serving in silence, you know, obviously I have no knowledge of that, but according to what I have been told, I am the first openly-serving transgender drill sergeant in the United States Army.

SUAREZ: Now, there are people who have served over the years who are going to hear this sitting at home or in a car somewhere thinking this doesn't feel right to me. This doesn't sit right with me. I wouldn't have wanted to serve with somebody like this. Is part of your life now as a public person and as a person in uniform answering those fears and those concerns just by being a model soldier?

OCHOA: You know, with the news being so fresh, people like myself we've been put into this spotlight under this microscope. For those people who do have doubts about this, we're here to prove that we're just like everybody else at the end of the day. We are service members who just happen to be transgender.

All we want to do is put our best foot forward and serve our country honorably and to the best of our ability. And in my case as being a drill sergeant, that's what I'm getting ready to go do later this summer. My responsibility is to train America's sons and daughters and to get them ready for being in the army. And ultimately that's what it comes down to I just happen to be transgender.

SUAREZ: That's Sergeant Kennedy Ochoa. Sergeant Ochoa is an Army drill sergeant. Thanks for joining us.

OCHOA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.