On the morning of July 26, President Donald Trump tweeted an unexpected announcement: “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow ... ”
Nine minutes later, Trump’s Twitter followers — and the rest of the world — discovered not what, but who he wanted to ban: transgender service members.
A 2016 assessment commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense to better understand the “implications of allowing transgender personnel to serve openly” in the military counts an estimated 1,320 to 6,630 transgender service members.
News outlets across the United States highlighted active-duty transgender service members’ reactions to Trump’s tweets, which have not directly translated into policy yet. Some retired military veterans in Missouri, both transgender and transgender allies, told St. Louis Public Radio that the president’s missives were personal.
Here are their stories:
‘We are patriotic Americans, and we served our country’
Kathryn Bacon was on the sofa watching cable news in her St. Louis home that morning. The Army veteran couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
“It was just numbing. … It was really disheartening to hear him say that,” she recalled.
Bacon served for eight years throughout the 1970s. She had not yet transitioned from male to female. Back then, being transgender was grounds for undesirable and dishonorable discharge.
That changed in June 2016, when then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that active-duty service members would be allowed to serve openly and called the previous policy “outdated.” Trump’s tweet, which appeared to undo the acceptance of transgender troops, made Bacon feel like her identity was under attack.
“We have a high percentage of us that do go in the military and do serve honorably. And, for him to just cut the legs out from under people with no warning. … It’s bigotry, is what it is,” she said.
Bacon has known that she was transgender since she was 5 years old, adding: “I came out in Catholic school that I was wishing to be a girl. … I was called an abomination before the Lord.”
According to Bacon, her transition officially began in 2011 when she used her retirement money to pay for her gender confirmation surgeries.
“If we don’t transition, we die,” Bacon said. “We have enormous pressures on us to conform.”
That pressure became too much for her to bear while stationed in Germany in the ’70s. Bacon went to the dispensary feeling “severely depressed,” and was sent to an Army Reserve psychiatrist.
“It all came rushing out of me that I was transgender,” Bacon recalled, saying the psychiatrist responded: “Oh boy. You know you can get kicked out of the Army for that?”
Bacon did know. As an Army paralegal, she prepared discharge paperwork for outgoing soldiers, including many who were dishonorably discharged. “I processed discharges for people who were lesbian, gay, and bisexual and transgender. And, I figured I was going to get kicked out of the military,” she said.
But the psychiatrist kept Bacon’s secret confidential and provided the emotional support she needed to carry out her term of service.
“We are patriotic Americans, and we served our country. I did,” she said with a deep sigh. “I think I’m a good person. I’m honest. I’m decent to people. I’ve worked hard all my life. I’ve raised a family. What more do I gotta do?”
Bacon’s reaction to Trump’s tweets was deeply rooted: “For us to be questioned on our patriotism. I mean, I still cry when I see them do a 21-gun salute and play ‘Taps’ on a fallen soldier,” she said, trailing off and chipping away at the bright pink polish on her fingernails. “That’s our guys.”
‘The president of the United States had just spit in my face’
On the Sunday following the tweets, hundreds gathered on a warm evening at the Transgender Memorial Garden in St. Louis to protest. Participants wrapped themselves in American, transgender and pride flags as drivers on Vandeventer Avenue honked in support.
By the time the first speaker took the stage, the garden was packed.
Cathy Serino drove nearly two hours from central Missouri to attend the rally. She’s a veteran, and proud of it, clocking 12 years in the National Guard after enlisting as a teenager.
That night, Serino wore tattered jeans and three big, round buttons on her teal blouse. One read “PROUD TO BE A TRANS WOMAN,” and another, “Live Authentically.”
No stranger to activism, she was the only transgender veteran who spoke. Since transitioning, Serino has been all over the country, including at a White House event and the GLAAD Media Awards, advocating for transgender rights.
“I’ve done more travelin’ in the last two years, than I have in my entire life … It’s really given me a purpose — to be able to stand up and help people,” Serino said. “I’m basically doing it not so much for myself. You know, I’m 50 years old. But, I’m doing this more for my grandchildren’s generation, so they hopefully don’t grow up with the same hate and discrimination I did.”
Serino first heard about Trump’s tweets when someone from a local media outlet called looking for a comment. She immediately got her phone out to view the tweets for herself.
“I was shocked and outraged right off the bat. And, then I got angry. I felt, basically, that the president of the United States had just spit in my face for my 12 years of service, basically saying that I was a distraction and a burden,” Serino said.
But her emotions quickly changed. “Then, I started getting a little depressed, worrying about the current service members that could lose their careers and jobs for them and their families, and their health coverage.”
That anger is what drew Serino to the rally in St. Louis. “I was like, OK, it’s time to start yelling again,” Serino said.
And yell she did as she waved a transgender flag fixed to a 6-foot-pole throughout the rally. The flag’s corners whipped in the wind as the rally lasted nearly three hours.
‘Transgender people might just be the start of this’
When Steven Zeiger took the stage that same evening, the crowd cheered, waving signs that read “love makes a family, “we won’t go back” and “trans rights are human rights.” He held an American flag as he spoke to its significance.
“It says everything,” Zeiger said in a resolved tone. “This flag represents freedom for all of us, not just one segment ... all of us collectively. That’s what we serve our country for.”
Zeiger is a retired master sergeant who served more than 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. He’s gay, not transgender, and enlisted at 19 in 1981 after nearly 60 American hostages were taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio a few days later, Zeiger was still animated.
“How dare anyone, especially the president of the United States, deny some citizens the right to serve their country,” Zeiger said, punctuating each word. “That is very deep and very personal.”
He especially took issue with Trump’s view, also expressed through a July 26 tweet, that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption” that transgender troops would entail.
“Costs for these transgender folks is irrelevant. Everybody has something or other going on that they are being treated with, or taking some kind of prescription drug for, or being operated on,” said Zeiger, pointing specifically to how much the military spends on drugs like Viagra.
The Military Times has reported the Department of Defense spends an estimated $84 million annually on erectile dysfunction medication. The RAND Corporation found that “the costs of gender transition-related health care are relatively low,” an estimation of between $2.4 million and $8.4 million a year.
“A distraction? ” Zeiger asked. “What about these people who are raping women? What about that?” he said referring to the pervasiveness of sexual assault in the military.
For Zeiger, who and served under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the 1990s, the “(the ban is) going backward. It has no place in our lives now.”
The military is now left to differentiate policy that’s proposed by the commander in chief on Twitter from orders they can implement. In a press briefing on July 27, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she “imagines the Department of Defense will be the lead” in determining the specifics of carrying out the policy. So far, there has been no indication that any branch of the military has received direct guidance on how to implement the president’s announcement.
Officials at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois said they have not received additional information other than what Sanders said. Officials from Fort Leonard Wood have deferred all requests for comment to the Pentagon.
That uncertainty has Zeiger worried.
“Transgender people might just be the start of this. You just, you don’t know where [Trump’s] going with this,” he said. Even so, he said he’s “proud to be an American — still.”
“And I still wear my uniform proudly, and carry my flag,” he added, putting his right hand to his chest.
Follow Brit on Twitter: @bnhanson