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Megan Winters
“Basically we were told, ‘We don‘t know if you have a job tomorrow or can be deployed,‘“ said Megan Winters, one of the plaintiffs in Lambda Legal‘s case.

BY TIM MURPHY

In 2011, Ryan Karnoski was a high school junior in Seattle when president Obama announced that ”don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy requiring gay servicemembers to stay closeted, was finally ending. It got him thinking. His grandfather and stepgrandfather had both served in the Korean War and he had several cousins in the Army and Navy, including one, a helicopter pilot, killed in action in Afghanistan in 2009. Enlisting was ”definitely something that I had always thought about in the context of my family history in the military,” he says.

Fast-forward to 2016. Karnoski had transitioned and was pursuing a degree in social work when Obama announced that, within a year, transgender people would be allowed to enlist and serve openly as well. Karnoski decided that he would complete his masters, then apply to be a military social worker. ”It was almost like perfect timing,” he says.

And he was very serious about his desire to enlist. ”As social workers, we make a commitment to serve the most vulnerable,” he says. ”A really important and overlooked community are the people who make huge sacrifices to serve in the military. They’re separated from their families, and they come back from wars with physical injuries as well as mental ones, like post-traumatic stress disorder. We mental health professionals have a commitment to remember them, so that’s how I would like to serve my country.”

Everything was on track. Then, on the morning of July 26 last year, Karnoski woke up to Trump’s infamous tweets saying that he would ban trans people from the military because their medical costs were a burden. (In reality the military spends more on Viagra than it does on trans health care.) It was followed by a fl ood of outreach from friends, both trans and not, asking if he’d seen the tweet.

”At first I was just really confused that such a serious policy decision could be made via a tweet,” says Karnoski. ”It felt like the rug was being pulled out from under the world I thought I was living in. But then I felt sick to my stomach when I thought of all the trans people I knew who had made the decision to come out while serving. I didn’t even think about the impact it would have on my own career until a couple days later.”

Meanwhile, as the White House formalized Trump’s tweet by saying that the military would return to its prior policy of authorizing the discharge of trans service members by March 2018, Lambda Legal tweeted out an open query to trans people, asking how the ban would affect them. ”We received a ton of responses, making loud and clear the problems that so many people were facing,” says Lambda Legal Law Fellow Kara Ingelhart.

A HOLIDAY VICTORY

Just before the holidays, Karnoski and Lambda Legal got a huge win: The federal judge in the case, fi led in Washington State, issued a preliminary injunction that stops the ban pending a final ruling in the lawsuit and ruled that the ban was likely unconstitutional for violating transgender people’s rights to equal protection and due process —as well as their First Amendment rights. The ruling made for four out of four wins of this kind thus far in cases fi led against the ban.

Sasha Buchert, Lambda Legal Attorney
“The administration is going to fight this tooth and nail,“ says Sasha Buchert, a Lambda Legal attorney on the case who is transgender and served as a Marine.

"This is a sweeping victory,” says Lambda Legal Acting Legal Director Camilla Taylor. ”It’s so broadly protective of the liberty, equality and First Amendment rights of transgender people that it’s likely to reverberate around the country and have an impact on cases that have nothing to do with the military or even employment. It’s saying that trans people have a core right to self-definition.”

The battle is far from over. Because of the court rulings, transgender people have been able to join the military as of January 1, 2018, and their discharge is prohibited for now, but the Trump administration is still fighting in the lower courts to overturn those rulings.

"The administration is going to fi ght this tooth and nail,” says Sasha Buchert, a Lambda Legal attorney working on the case who is transgender and a former U.S. Marine.

"We’re likely to succeed on the merits of our claims,” says Taylor. ”Rest assured, we’re in this for the long haul.”

That’s good news to Megan Winters, 29, a Navy information systems technician in Alexandria, Virginia, and one of the transgender plaintiffs. ”This has been so difficult to deal with,” she says, ”because things were fi nally getting smoothed out around transgender policy and the tweet pretty much destroyed the communication path up and down the chain of command. Basically we were told, ’We don’t know if you have a job tomorrow or can be deployed. We need you to sit quietly in the corner.’ So I’ve continued to do my job but it’s been hard.”

“In reality the military spends ten times more money on Viagra than on trans health care."

She says that being part of the lawsuit was not something she relished. ”I raised my right hand to defend this country, not to sue it,” she says. “I just want us to be accepted like anybody else and not be questioned over this ridiculous idea that we’re a fi nancial burden to the military when we know we’re not.”

Conner callahan
Callahan, another plaintiff in Lambda Legal‘s case, has wanted to be part of the Air Force or Army since he was a teen.

Meanwhile, in Asheville, North Carolina, Conner Callahan, 29, another plaintiff, a public safety officer at a local college, has begun the process of joining the military, based on the court victory. He says he’s desired to serve since he was 12 or 13. ”There’s the history, the camaraderie, the brotherhood of it all,” he says. ”You get to do things that no other job can possibly give you.” He wants to work in bomb disposal.

He says that the idea of being banned from serving hurts him deeply. ”I’m well educated,” he says. “I‘ve never had issues with drugs or crime. I’m an upstanding, healthy, intelligent good citizen saying that I’m willing to possibly give up my own life for my country, and you’re telling me I can’t serve because of something I can’t help? That’s tough to deal with.”

PREPARED TO SERVE

Karnoski, too, is closely monitoring the legal proceedings. He says he‘s prepared to start the time-consuming and laborintensive process of applying for direct commission—in which highly qualifi ed military candidates can bypass some of the basic requirements such as a four-year military academy or a ROTC program—but wants to be sure that the law says that transgender people can enlist and serve.

”I wouldn’t want to do this,” he says, ”until I was sure I would have a fair opportunity to be considered.”

Meanwhile, he enjoys life in Seattle with his new wife, Ester, a data analyst, and their two cats, Mister Smith and Cattie. ”We watch a fair amount of Netflix,” he says. ”We love that show Australia’s Cheapest Weddings and we rewatch a lot of Friends.” He also loves to bake. ”Ester is Israeli,” he says, ”so we’ve been making challah bread and also chocolate babka. I messed mine up so I had to turn it into cinnamon rolls. But it still tasted good.”

And he’s also plenty busy in his job as a child and adolescent clinician at both a community mental health clinic and a rural high school in southeast Washington. Among those he serves are transgender children. ”I’m glad what’s going on now with the ban against trans people isn’t on their radar,” he says. ”But I do think about how I’m involved with something that hopefully is going to impact their lives in a good way.”

To learn more about the case, visit lambdalegal.org/military