NORFOLK, Va. — In slow motion, Petty Officer 2nd Class Taryn McLean pulled his Navy uniform blouse over his T-shirt and pressed gingerly at his still-sore belly. He loosened his belt a notch, pulled his cap from a hook in the foyer of his Portsmouth bungalow and headed out the front door into a blizzard.
The snowstorm on Jan. 7, 2017, dashed Taryn’s plans to gather friends and family at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront to mark another milestone in his career. There would be no photos in front of the King Neptune statue for the shadowbox that he hoped to make for his grandchildren someday.
With a long drive out of the question, Taryn, who enlisted in 2010, settled on a different spot, along the banks of the Elizabeth River, two blocks away from his house.
He stood at attention in the bitter cold as a handful of people walked by, sleds in hand, taking no heed of the wintry spectacle.
Navy Lt. JoAnna Kyle, a friend who flew in from New York for the occasion, administered the oath, shouting to be heard over the whipping wind. Taryn’s wife, Emily, and best friend, Noelia Ramirez, shivered nearby, the snow lashing frozen faces.
Right hand raised, Taryn, who is now 29, repeated the promise to obey the orders of the president and to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. He committed himself to another six years of military service, bringing him “into the homestretch” of his goal to retire after 20.
That prospect felt good to someone who, just six months earlier, had finally been allowed to begin serving as his true self. Taryn was born female but identifies as male. He is among 11,000 transgender active duty and reserve troops that the RAND Corp. estimated — in a report prepared for the Pentagon — are serving in the armed forces.
Taryn allowed The Virginian-Pilot to document his transition during a period of about 16 months after then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter dropped the ban on transgender service on June 30, 2016. He has said he hopes that by sharing his story he can help others like him and increase understanding of what it’s like to be transgender.
His brief re-enlistment ceremony came 11 days after he underwent a hysterectomy, a surgery to remove his ovaries and uterus, at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. The procedure, he believes, put him at the forefront of a historic opportunity for transgender service members.
That this was happening at all affirmed for Taryn his decision to make a career out of being a sailor. He looked forward to someday being “an old salt.”
Every day, Taryn pulled a binder over his head to flatten his breasts against his chest. It had been so long since he’d worn a bra that he couldn’t even remember his size. The binder slimmed his silhouette under his uniform and bulkier clothes. But lighter and tighter fabrics, and sometimes the cut of clothing, could make him self-conscious and trigger his dysphoria, a medical disorder associated with the distress felt when someone’s birth gender fails to match their experience of identity.
The hysterectomy had been a start. Now he waited for the military to approve a breast removal, commonly referred to in the transgender community as “top surgery.” He hoped it might happen before another humid Virginia summer. He hadn’t been swimming since boot camp.
“I want to be shirtless,” he said. “It is warm. I like to work in the yard. I like to do that kind of stuff.”
Taryn longed to “be like every other guy.”
“Gender identity is a person’s sense of being male or female,” a man’s voice said to the two dozen sailors assembled at Fighter Squadron Composite Twelve’s hangar at Naval Air Station Oceana on a Sunday afternoon in January 2017.
A flag reading “Ambush,” the squadron’s radio call sign, hung from a podium. Framed photos of jets decorated the conference room’s walls. VFC-12, a reserve unit, plays the role of the enemy, flying adversary missions to train East Coast squadrons; Taryn was assigned there in mid-2014 in a full-time administrative position.
Cmdr. Dewey “RC” Lopes started the presentation by reminding the sailors of the Golden Rule. They didn’t need to change their beliefs, “but your rights end where someone else’s begin.”
As part of the military’s policy shift, the entire force received training on how to work with transgender service members in a respectful environment. Taryn blended easily among the other sailors receiving the training, sitting silent, resisting the urge to jump into the discussion.
Transgender people do not choose the lifestyle as a means of seeking attention, the voice said. “On the contrary, these are very personal, private decisions” and should be treated with dignity and respect.
Taryn’s gender identity was no secret at VFC-12 by early 2017. But in a command of more than 200 sailors, some of whom had come and gone during his tenure, it also wasn’t a hot topic.
So when a sailor next to him grunted and groaned throughout the training and made under-the-breath comments about issues such as which bathroom a transgender person should use, Taryn wasn’t fazed. During breaks, the guy leaned over as if the two were confidants.
Of all the people that guy could have sat next to, Taryn thought.
Even if he hadn’t been transgender, Taryn said, he would have been taken aback. After all he’d been through to get to this point, he’d developed a thick skin in response to people’s unsolicited opinions. He felt like the joke was on them.
“He didn’t even know,” Taryn said. “He had no idea. It didn’t affect him, it didn’t impact him at all. So, and I just, I had to laugh at that. I found the comedy in it just because there are people out there like that that have already made up their mind about something that just have no idea about it at all.”
To VFC-12 Taryn was “he” — his preferred pronoun — in most everyday interactions, but the military still considered him female. His birth certificate still identified him that way, and so did the Navy’s accounting and personnel system.
On March 8, 2017, Taryn approached a Portsmouth City Circuit Court clerk clasping a file that contained nearly every document he had that could prove who he was. If he could persuade a judge to amend his birth certificate from female to male, he could petition the Navy to switch his gender with his commanding officer’s approval.
Like the flick of a switch.
“Can I help you, sir?” the clerk asked as he approached.
“I need to file a petition for a gender change,” Taryn said, but his usual confidence gave way to uncertainty in front of authority, rendering the words “gender change” nearly inaudible.
“Name change?” the woman asked.
“Gender change,” Taryn said more forcefully. He handed over the petition he’d filled out at home and wondered aloud if he was the first to ask the court in Portsmouth for a gender change. Instead of answering, the woman walked away and came back a few minutes later. Take a seat, she told him; she needed to find the proper paperwork.
After what seemed like an interminable wait, the clerk returned again, this time with a tall woman who handed over a copy of the Virginia code on amending vital records and asked for his medical documents.
“Does it specify what medical procedures?” Taryn asked the woman, looking over the page.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said. “And your name has already been changed?”
“Yes,” Taryn said.
That was all the women needed. The original clerk took over, entering data into a computer. She slid a copy of the petition across the desk and asked Taryn to sign. He scribbled his name quickly as she made a face at his fastidiousness.
“Imma show you mine,” she told Taryn, laughing. She signed the paper, making it official. “Told ya I got you beat.”
After charging him $41, including a convenience fee for the use of a credit card, she handed him a receipt and his petition, underlined a case number and told him to return nine days later, on St. Patrick’s Day, at 10 a.m.
“Again, I apologize for taking so long,” she said.
“That’s alright,” Taryn responded. “I’m sure it’s not an everyday occurrence.”
“We just want to make sure things are working,” the clerk said.
At 9:58 a.m. on March 17, Taryn stopped briefly in the men’s room down the hall from courtroom No. 3. He worried about whether the green folder holding a doctor’s letter, military medical transition plan and documents showing his discharge from his recent surgery would convince the judge to grant his petition.
Would the hysterectomy be considered enough of a medical procedure?
“I’d really hate to have to come back,” Taryn said.
He took a seat alone on the right side of the room on a wooden bench in the second row.
Pockets of people sat throughout the gallery, including a transgender woman.
Circuit Judge Dean W. Sword took his seat at 10:15 a.m. and looked over the day’s docket.
“We’ve got some name changes, and because they’re always quick, I’m going to do those first,” he announced.
The judge moved through the first one in about five minutes before picking up a red file.
“McLean,” he said, calling out Taryn’s last name. Then he realized the error. “Whoops, no. That’s definitely not a name change.”
Taryn cracked a smile.
A minute later Sword again called Taryn’s name. The sailor stepped to the wood podium at the center of the room.
There’s one problem, the judge said. He needed evidence that Taryn had undergone a medical procedure. Taryn mentioned the documents he was carrying and handed the file to a bailiff.
Sword flipped through it. Several heavy seconds passed.
“Alright, sir, looks like you’ve complied with the code,” Sword said before sending Taryn back to the clerk for a copy of his court order.
A wedding party had taken up all the available seats in the clerk’s office. A man in a suit holding a briefcase who had been in the courtroom during Taryn’s hearing looked at him and nodded.
“Congratulations,” he said.
By 10:38 a.m., Taryn was officially male in the state in which he was born.
A cool spring breeze wafted through VFC-12′s open hangar door as 14 of the squadron’s sailors stood at attention.
Taryn saluted Lopes as he approached and beamed as his commanding officer pinned the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal to his chest.
The April 1 ceremony was a first for Taryn. In his seven years in the Navy, he had racked up more than 300 off-duty volunteer hours with a long list of organizations, including Hampton Roads Meals on Wheels, Wreaths Across America, the LGBT Center of Hampton Roads and the Sitter & Barfoot Veterans Care Center in Richmond.
He could have sought the award years earlier. But until he was allowed to serve openly, Taryn resisted anything that might make him stand out.
“I didn’t want to stand in front of a whole command and have somebody read off a citation that said ‘she,’ ‘she,’ ‘she’, ‘her’,” Taryn said. “So, I made it a point to just kind of not really, like, shine in that sense.”
He also had an underlying fear that too much attention could draw criticism or harassment. He still felt he was in the Navy at the mercy of others.
“I did as much as possible to not have a target put on my back,” he said.
Taryn often avoided situations where he had to wear anything other than the Navy’s standard everyday unisex uniform. Many sailors hate the dress uniforms’ stiff, heavy fabric. But for Taryn, it was suffocating.
He had already had one negative experience. When VFC-12 needed someone to take on legal clerk duties in spring 2016, Taryn, who had the training, said he volunteered. When he was turned down, he said, a superior implied he was not a “good fit” because he would have to wear the Navy’s female service uniform and interact with others outside the command who did not know him.
On the citation Lopes handed Taryn during that April ceremony, there were no pronouns at all. He was just YN2 McLean.
Taryn’s orders sent him to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth in early May 2017. Before he checked into his new command, a handful of Taryn’s co-workers gathered around tables at Tubby’s Tavern in Virginia Beach in late April to celebrate Taryn’s last day at VFC-12, an event called a “hail and bail.”
Chief Petty Officer Ramon Cruz, Taryn’s supervisor, addressed the small crowd, calling the sailor a “quiet professional” whose work had been essential in helping pass a squadron inspection a year earlier.
“You still got a home here at VFC-12,” Cruz told him.
Taryn hoped to start at his new command with his top surgery behind him. With a fresh start he could avoid being the “trans guy.”
The previous month, with little fanfare, Taryn’s gender was changed in the Navy’s personnel system. In early summer, his case manager at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth called and asked if he was interested in going to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda for a top surgery consultation.
On July 25, Taryn was following his new puppy, Caspian, through his backyard, when his phone rang.
An electronic voice asked for “the patient born on Sept. 13.”
“If you can take responsibility for this patient, press one,” the automated voice said.
In a matter of a few seconds, Taryn confirmed a consult for July 28.
Taryn had already spent hours researching surgeries, back when he figured he’d have to pay out of pocket. He’d found a surgeon in North Carolina, Dr. Hope Sherie, who pioneered the “buttonhole” procedure, which removes breast tissue and repositions the nipples to maintain sensation with minimal scarring. Sherie’s office charges $8,100 for the operation, Kevin Martin, a patient care coordinator, said. Now, Taryn hoped the military had a plastic surgeon who could perform it.
The consult had been a long time coming. Already, it looked like another summer might pass without surgery.
Taryn ticked off a list of questions he’d already been planning to ask. He didn’t want his dysphoria and impatience to cloud his judgment about whatever options the military doctor might present him for the surgery.
Would the doctor make a distinction between a double mastectomy and transgender-related top surgery? What new techniques did they know? What experience did they have? How would they treat his nipples?
“I want to get into the nitty gritty,” Taryn said. “Like, I want to see what you know, how much you know.”
Just undressing before getting into the shower could trigger his dysphoria. If the outside matched the inside, he’d feel much more complete.
“Sometimes that’s the only part of my day where I can see that mismatch happen where I’m, like, man, I have to get, like, a top surgery, like, I have to,” he said. “Like, I don’t feel comfortable, and there’s a strong disassociation with, like, parts of my body because they don’t match with how I see myself and the person that I am.”
Taryn was already at work the next morning when President Donald J. Trump threw down the gauntlet.
Trump let the world know where he stood July 26, 2017. The government would “no longer accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity” in the military, he declared on Twitter.
“Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” he wrote.
Trump’s tweets surprised the Pentagon, which made clear it hadn’t been consulted about the new policy.
Critics of open transgender service have focused on the cost of medical treatment and and the potential impact on readiness. The military is not the place to test social policy, they say; neither is there room for political correctness on the battlefield.
On July 13, U.S Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Republican from Missouri, introduced an amendment to the defense bill that sought to stop the Pentagon from paying for gender transition surgeries and hormone treatment, which she said would cost more than $1 billion over 10 years. The amendment was narrowly defeated, 209-214.
The conservative Family Research Council has also focused on the cost of surgery. The organization estimated in a paper issued in July 2017 that time lost and the direct medical costs could be between $1.9 billion and $3.7 billion over 10 years.
“The last thing we should be doing is diverting billions of dollars from mission-critical training to something as controversial as gender reassignment surgery,” FRC President Tony Perkins, a Marine Corps veteran, said in a news release in response to Trump’s tweets.
A RAND report prepared for the Pentagon estimated that extending transition-related care to active duty transgender troops would cost the military’s health system $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually out of an overall $6.2 billion spent on active duty troops alone by the Defense Department in fiscal 2014. In another estimate using private insurance data RAND said it expected between 29 and 129 active duty troops, out of an active force of a little more than 1.3 million, to seek gender-transition health care annually. The Palm Center, a California-based research institute, estimated in August 2017 that discharging transgender troops could cost $960 million.
Supporters of open service were quick to point to a 2015 Military Times analysis that showed the Defense Department spent more than $84 million on 1.18 million erectile dysfunction prescriptions, including $41.6 million on Viagra, in 2014. Active duty troops accounted for 102,885 of those prescriptions, $7.6 million worth.
A friend texted Emily a screenshot of Trump’s tweets at 8:12 a.m., minutes after he sent them. Emily read them to herself as she walked to greet her class of summer school students.
She wanted to cry.
“I felt like we’d lost everything,” she said.
Taryn is barred from having his personal cell phone at his job at Norfolk Naval Shipyard and only occasionally looks at news during lunch. Emily feared he’d learn about Trump’s order from the dozens of messages that were bound to be waiting for him after work, so she enlisted his friend, Noelia Ramirez, to call his work line.
Ramirez, who is in the Coast Guard, met Taryn in high school. They’d been best friends ever since. Get your stuff in order, in case, she told him.
“I love you and I will do anything, like, to keep you guys afloat,” she said before hanging up.
Taryn printed out all his service records. As Chelsea Manning — a transgender woman who, as Army soldier Bradley Manning was convicted of espionage and later exonerated in the final days of the Obama administration — appeared in Vogue, splashed across a page wearing a red one-piece bathing suit, Taryn again went into what he called “survival mode.”
At home that afternoon, Emily scrolled through her phone as she stood in her kitchen waiting for Taryn to come home from his weekly Roadmaps session, a transgender support group at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. When she left work that day she had posted a Facebook update asking for prayers “for us and for the person who’s behind these decisions, that miracles can and will happen. It’s so easy to be filled with hatred and anger right now but I could not let the hatred and anger win. Thankful for the tribe of people surrounding us.”
A flood of supportive responses, some from people who did not know that her husband is transgender, surprised her.
Why doesn’t the administration just cut transgender health care, Emily wondered. She’d rather have to pay for testosterone and surgeries out of pocket than hear that transgender troops are “unfit.”
“It’s not really about money,” Emily said.
She read aloud from a CNN story, quoting Holtzer: “Military service is a privilege, not a right. We must ensure all our precious defense dollars are used to strengthen our national defense. Now, we can focus on rebuilding our military and addressing the growing threats around the world.”
“It is a privilege, not a right,” Emily said, her voice of a combination of sarcasm and bewilderment. “Huh.”
Taryn walked in the front door in a black Nike baseball cap and a Boise State University T-shirt as the dogs ran to greet him. On the outside, he appeared calm, though his usual charm was subdued. On the inside, Taryn later admitted, he felt frantic.
“Has your phone been blowing up?” Emily asked as she leaned in to kiss his cheek.
“Yeah, I haven’t caught up yet,” he said, grabbing his phone from his pocket and staring at the screen.
He flipped on the television, settling on MSNBC. Everything has to continue on as usual, he said.
A somberness enveloped the couple’s home that afternoon as they searched for answers.
A story came on about Trump’s speech two days earlier at the annual Boy Scout Jamboree, in which the president railed against his political opponents. Taryn speculated that the president’s tweets were a tactic to divert attention from the ongoing debate over a rollback of Obamacare and to rally his supporters.
He reminded Emily that he’s got a contract to serve for years to come, and that they weren’t about to be homeless. If he’s pushed out of the Navy, he could use his GI Bill, he said.
“So, that is contingency plan number one,” Taryn told Emily.
A friend of Taryn’s joined the couple, hunkered in the living room as they alternatively watched TV news and scrolled through their phones. Taryn played a message from Hampton Roads Pride, a local LGBT advocacy group, asking if he would appear on an afternoon news broadcast about his experience that day. He found another invitation from a local reporter in his Facebook messages. But Taryn didn’t want to talk to the media; he wanted to talk to the American Civil Liberties Union and Outserve-SLDN, an LGBT military advocacy group, about what to do next.
Could the commander in chief govern by tweet? The Pentagon had yet to issue a formal policy. Even if it was all speculation, an attack on transgender service members appeared imminent.
“Like, is it today because of this tweet? No, but that’s not to say that that door’s not already open or things aren’t already circulating or in process of being there,” Taryn said.
Later than night, he got a message of support from his new supervisor at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. He was surprised. He wasn’t aware that his boss even knew he was transgender.
Taryn pointed their Chevy pickup northwest toward Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, 200 miles away in Bethesda. A box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts sat on the passenger seat.
It had been two days since Trump’s tweets and a day since Marine Corps. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a message to the other service chiefs stating that the military would continue to allow open transgender service and medical treatment until Mattis issued guidance on implementing the White House’s directive.
Taryn texted smiling photos of himself in a hospital gown from an exam room as he waited for his consult, but he left Walter Reed disappointed and without a date for surgery.
The White House issued its formal memorandum Aug. 25. It gave Mattis until Feb. 21 to submit a plan for reverting to the policy banning transgender service — unless the secretary of defense could “conclude” that terminating it would not hinder readiness, cause disruption or “tax military resources.” The memorandum, scheduled to take effect March 23, also banned further funding for gender reassignment surgeries, “except to the extent necessary to protect the health” of those who had already begun treatment.
Summer passed without surgery. Taryn hoped that being open about his identity would help others. Now he had to work harder to prove himself worthy.
“I live under a microscope, especially right now,” he said in September. “So, if that’s the case, you definitely want to have, like, a good argument for why you should be here.”
What about that commitment he made months ago along the riverbank on that freezing January day?
How do you react when the commander in chief breaks a promise with you that you’ve come to rely on for your livelihood and effectively tells you, “You’re not good enough to die for this country?”
“Well, I’ll tell you how you react,” Taryn said. “You fight like hell.”