HOHENFELS, Germany — My eyes welled with tears of happiness, and I cried as I had never cried before. For 20 years, I fought against who I am. But that day was the closest I ever felt to freedom. It was June 30, 2016, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had just announced an end to the United States military’s ban on transgender service.
My name is Jennifer Sims. I am a United States Army captain and a transgender woman who has served my country with distinction for more than six years. I am speaking for myself here, not on behalf of the Army or the government, but I suspect my feelings resonate with other transgender service members.
Every transgender person has a different story. For me, growing up in Florida and Minnesota, I never felt right as a boy, struggling to conform to what that meant. It was before the internet and smartphones were everywhere, so I never heard the word “transgender” or had any way to look up confidentially what I was feeling. I thought it was simply a phase I was going through.
Like many transgender women before they come out, I tried to act as masculine as I could. I played every sport possible, and always tried to be the strongest, fastest boy on the playground. My family has a history of military service, so I told people my dream was to be in the Army. What could be manlier than joining the military? In my sophomore year at Florida Atlantic University, I joined Army R.O.T.C. I also finally began to accept myself, but I didn’t come to the conclusion that I am transgender until 2010, almost a year after I had committed to an Army R.O.T.C. scholarship.
My choices were simple, yet complex: serve the nation or serve myself. On the one hand, I no longer felt the need to act supermasculine in my life, and I saw a path forward. On the other, I saw a nation at war and I wanted to help. In the end, I couldn’t resist the call to serve. In 2011, I graduated and accepted my commission as a second lieutenant in the Army. Eight months later, I was in Afghanistan managing communications for an aviation task force in Zabul Province.
For more than four years, I suppressed my secret. Living a lie left me utterly exhausted, but the worst part was never being able to talk to anyone about what I was feeling. I had served in Afghanistan, Indonesia and Germany, and my mental health was deteriorating. I was depressed and found little enjoyment in life.
That all changed in July 2015 when the Department of Defense announced that it would begin studying open transgender service. I came out to my family, and when I could, I started living more of my life as myself. It wasn’t perfect, though, as I had to continue keeping this hidden at work. A military unit is like a living being, and a senior leader coming out as transgender in the wrong way could become a self-destructive virus. I felt it was my duty to keep anything about being transgender from making its way into the workplace until the time was right.
The day the policy officially changed I immediately sought medical care but had to wait while everyone in the Army became familiar with the new guidelines. In November 2016, I began my medical transition. Each day was better than the one before, but it wasn’t until last April that I felt true freedom for the first time. In consultation with my commander, I came out to my unit. Although some were slow to accept me, there have not been any disruptions to the unit’s operations because of my revelation.
I’m pleased that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is seeking to clarify President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday about barring transgender people from serving in the military. But I won’t feed the expected narrative about the commander in chief ending my dreams of a military career; I’m ready for civilian life when my commitment is up and focused on attending law school. I will simply say that, from what I have experienced, open transgender service strengthens our military. Enabling soldiers to pursue their gender identity allows them to feel a part of the Army’s team and empowers them to be all they can be. Every soldier deserves to have that experience, including the thousands who are transgender.
The last two years, the years I’ve been transitioning, have been the most productive so far of my eight-year commitment to the Army, and I can only imagine what else I could have accomplished if I had felt unencumbered during those first four years. Despite everything I’ve been through, and regardless of my future plans, until the day I am no longer in uniform, I will continue contributing everything I can in service of the nation.
Jennifer Sims is a captain in the United States Army. The article was first published in the New York times and is reprinted here with permission.