WASHINGTON — Jamie Lee Henry is a doctor and major in the Army’s Medical Corps. She also is a transgender woman.
In holding an interview with BuzzFeed News, Henry is the first known active-duty Army officer to come out as transgender. She also is, to her knowledge and to the knowledge of LGBT advocates, the first and only active duty service member who has changed her name and gender within the United States military.
It’s not a secret within the military. When Henry requested that her name and gender be officially changed in mid-March, the Army “actually used female pronouns in the document” that granted the request for the change in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS), she said. After receiving that in May, she then used the Army’s response to change her permanent military records in the interactive Personnel Electronic Records Management System (iPERMS), as well as in her medical records. The changes came, she said, “I think to the surprise of many, that it was even possible. But it’s been confirmed, it has been changed.”
These steps may sound small and technical, but they are completely new to the military.
The official, long-standing Army policy remains that being transgender or being diagnosed with gender dysphoria — the medical diagnosis that corresponds with seeking treatment for being transgender — is incompatible with military service and grounds for dismissal.
There have been some signs that policy may change. Earlier this year, the Army raised the level of who must authorize the discharge of trans service members from a commander in the field to the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs — action that echoed a step taken as the ban on gay service members was nearing its end.
Henry says her story — and the story of many other trans people currently serving — proves that being out and trans is compatible with military service. What’s more, Henry says that being trans has made her a better service member and better doctor.
The 32-year-old Henry joined ROTC almost 15 years ago — at age 17. She has been “treating wounded, ill, and injured” service members for 10 years, ever since she did her first rotation in the psych ward at Walter Reed.
Three years ago, however, her life was in upheaval. It was a very difficult time — she even became homeless briefly — as she came out as transgender to the people in her life, and dealt with complications to her family, religious, and military life.
One of the key people who helped her through the period was her commanding officer. He provided Henry with housing, helped her continue her military career, and advocated for her family interests — all while knowing she was transgender. “My company commander restored my faith in what it means to be a soldier,” she said.
Although Henry began socially transitioning then — while engaged in a messy divorce and custody dispute — she did not begin any medical or physical steps until this past fall. At Whitman Walker Health, a Washington-based provider that specializes in LGBT-related health care, she began taking the additional steps. If the social transition was a risk, this posed a bigger one for a military officer. “The frank moment came with my command in an emergency department room, because I was afraid, as I was transitioning physically and medically, that I would lose everything.”
This wasn’t the case, as it turned out — despite having a new commander who she feared might harbor less positive views of transgender people. “My commander said, ‘I don’t care who you love, I don’t care how you identify, I want you to be healthy and I want you to be able to do your job,’” Henry said. “I was blown away … because of the stereotypes that I held, growing up in the South, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family, that he would automatically think I was a freak, he would automatically think, ‘You need to be discharged just like the regs recommend.’”
But instead, he posed the question to her, asking what she wanted. “I said, ‘If I gave that up over that issue, knowing I can do my job and do it perfectly well, I feel that I’d be sacrificing my values and the Army’s values.’”
Her commander agreed, and she stayed. She did, however, have to maintain male grooming standards — the Army requirements for presentation and appearance. He also gave her a warning at the time. According to Henry, the commanding officer advised her not to speak to media, because if a higher-level commander ordered him to discharge her, he would have to do so.
Even less than a year later, though, the landscape regarding transgender issues has changed significantly.
A few days before Henry spoke with BuzzFeed News, on June 4, the New York Times published a documentary by Fiona Dawson, “Transgender, at War and in Love,” featuring Senior Airman Logan Ireland, an out transgender service member currently serving in Afghanistan, and his fiancé, Laila Villanueva, also a transgender service member. Later that day, the Air Force, similar to the Army, raised the level of Air Force official responsible for separations based on gender dysphoria and also announced, “Neither gender dysphoria nor self-identification as transgender is an automatic circumstance that generates involuntary separation.”
In the midst of all this, the Pentagon is set to hold an LGBT pride event hosted by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Tuesday. Henry was invited and, despite nearly a month of back and forth with superiors, she said on Sunday that she plans to wear the male dress uniform on Tuesday “unless they say otherwise.” She noted that she would be doing so “mainly because [her] personal timeline for this gender transition is not the same as the DOD’s timeline, as we speak. That’s the bottom line.”
Nonetheless, she will be there, watching for signs of what that timeline is.
“On Tuesday, I’m looking forward to what the secretary of defense has to say,” she said, noting Carter’s comments in February that nothing “but their suitability for service should preclude” transgender people from serving in the military.
Henry is blunt — yet pleasant — about the difficulties she has faced and continues to face.
“Yes, it’s awkward. I’ve had to embrace awkwardness with gusto these last nine months,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not easy. It’s not easy for the people that are my family, it’s not easy for the people that are my friends prior to my transition.”
Explaining the process she has undertaken, she said, “Transitioning is very complex. It’s not just, like, surgery: one day you’re a boy, the next day you’re a girl, or vice versa, because you have some operation.”
She continued, giving an example: “You could talk about returning soldiers, or sailors, or airmen from the war over the last decade that have had mutilation to their genitalia from an IED. Their gender has not changed because they have an injury to their genitalia. OK? They’re the same gender they’ve always been.
“Just like with me: I’m the same gender I’ve always been in my mind, but all this other stuff, on the outside, is really just conforming to how I already feel and have felt my entire life.”
She quickly noted that, along with the difficulties, the process already has changed her life for the better. “People say, ‘Is this a choice?’ The choice is being healthy or sick. I can continue living a sick life, or I can live a healthy life,” she said simply, declaring that she has chosen health.
It’s also improving her work as a doctor, she said. “I find my trans experience has allowed me to relate to people, because all of us suffer, and I could relate to people’s suffering. I’m able to comfort people that feel isolated and lost and alone and broken. I can sit down with them and look them in the eyes, and say, ‘I can walk with you through this. I care about you, and I mean it.’”
Talking about her work with SPARTA — an LGBT service member and veterans group — Henry said that there are hundreds of people in the group in a similar situation to hers with whom she interacts.
“Once you see something, it’s hard to look away because my story is not unique,” she said. “And as an officer — as a field-grade officer, a major — and as a physician, hearing things — the despair, the feelings of disrespect or humiliation or whatever in not having someone’s medical and legal gender recognized — to hear that day in and day out [has] somewhat emboldened me to lead.”
To that end, Henry submitted a statement to the American Medical Association this weekend, asking the association to take a stand in support of trans troops. The resolution that was under consideration asked the AMA to affirm that there is no medically valid reason that transgender individuals cannot serve.
“Delaying adoption of this policy,” she said in her statement, “will only serve to further harm those of us who actively serve our country in silence every day. We simply cannot wait.”
On Monday afternoon, the organization took her advice and the advice of many others, passing the resolution in question.
Talking with BuzzFeed News, Henry broadened — and simplified — the argument she made to the AMA.
“It’s not just a trans issue, right? It’s a human issue. Can we recognize someone as an individual? Can we recognize the good in them? Can we recognize that they just want to do their job and do it well? Can we give them the circumstances, the environment, the tools to be able to do their job and do it well without the shame and the guilt and the fear and the pain that comes along with being different? Can we do that? Can we do that in a place like America?” she asked. “I believe we can.”