Nicolas Talbott is openly transgender. Come Jan. 1, if the courts allow, he will enlist in the U.S. military.
The 24-year-old from Ohio has worked with a recruiter since June 2016 to be ready for that moment. It would be historic, but it’s a moment that has also been fiercely fought by President Donald Trump, on the premise that transgender service members would harm military readiness.
Whether Talbott will have an opportunity to enlist hangs on a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The Trump administration has appealed a lower court’s decision that rejected their request to delay a Jan. 1, 2018, deadline to begin accepting transgender recruits.
Talbott is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He said if the circuit court decides in their favor, he’ll “absolutely” be enlisting immediately after.
“I’ve always been interested in serving in the United States military,” Talbott said.
The circuit court’s decision is expected any day now.
Talbott had been working toward enlisting since summer 2016, when former Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that by July 1, 2017, the military would accept transgender recruits. Previous U.S. policy had banned Talbott from openly joining or serving.
As a child, “I always wore boy’s clothes and wore my hair short. I knew that I was transgender before I even knew the word,” he said in a declaration accompanying the lawsuit. Talbott began taking hormones and transitioned to his life as a man in 2012.
He got a degree in criminology from Kent State in 2015, and said during one of his security studies classes, a professor pulled him aside and said, “I’ve seen your writing, I’ve seen you speak. Why aren’t you in the military?” Talbott said, recalling the conversation.
“I told her it’s because I’m transgender and I’m not allowed to enlist,” Talbott said.
When the ban was lifted by former President Barack Obama’s administration, Talbott began working with an Air National Guard recruiter and set a July 2017 appointment with a doctor to clear him for service.
A doctor must certify that Talbott’s transgender status will have no adverse effect on his ability to serve, just as a doctor will have to clear Talbott’s old knee and ankle injuries.
On June 30, 2017, as part of the new Trump administration, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delayed the enlistment date by six months, to Jan. 1, 2018.
Trump tweeted three weeks later that Talbott and others like him wouldn’t have a chance to enlist at all. A legal battle has ensued in the months since.
Talbott said the setbacks have stung, but he treats them as hurdles to overcome.
“Even when the tweets came around I didn’t see it as an absolute ‘No,’” Talbott said. “I knew another door was going to open, it was just a matter of time.”
Since Trump’s tweets this July, the administration has argued that accepting transgender recruits would put an undue burden on the military and said it would need to train 23,000 personnel at military entrance processing stations to examine transgender recruits. Former service secretaries and transgender advocates have refuted that claim.
“I think that they [attorneys for Trump] are trying to make this a much bigger deal than it is,” Talbott said. “I think there is the very incorrect assumption that transgender people are so vastly different than regular gender people.”
While he waits, Talbott works out twice a day to meet the male fitness standards on the physical exam and studies for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test that will identify what military occupations his skill set qualifies him for.
Talbott wants to be in security forces or work in military intelligence.
“Counter-terrorism is absolutely my passion and what I want to spend my life doing,” he said.
Even if this court ruling opens the way for Talbott to enlist after Jan. 1, 2018, there’s still ongoing litigation on the overall right of transgender personnel to serve. That litigation is expected to continue through the spring, and has the potential to affect his military career even after enlistment.
If he got a chance to talk to Trump, Talbott said he’d try to show him that he would serve just like every other service member.
“If I could speak to President Trump, I would just tell him to please look at the information out there,” Talbott said.
“Speak to troops,” Talbott said, not only active duty, but veterans, too. “Because they [transgender veterans] are out there. Your gender and your gender identity do not affect your ability to serve your country.”
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.