'I'm Transgender—Here's How the Ban Shaped My Service With the Air Force'

I first joined the United States Air Force in 2013, and it was to run away. All of my life I have jostled with my gender identity, never feeling comfortable in the male body I was originally born with. Growing up in South Carolina, I saw the military as one of the most masculine jobs someone could do. I thought that if I joined the Air Force, I could "solve" my gender identity issues and be "a man".

Today this reads desperately simplistic, but looking back, I could not be more thankful for my misguided understanding of the military and what it meant. After joining the Air Force, I found myself a part of a team where I meant something. My job was in IT and my role fixing computers and solving problems was important. It was satisfying to know that what I did, no matter how small, made a difference. This was exactly what I needed and from early on in my career, I flourished. Small victories built my confidence, helping me find courage I needed.

In winter of 2016, I found myself deployed to Africa. It was there that the issues I had ran away from 3 years earlier finally caught up to me. Deployments are a crucible and I was trapped in a 2 by 4 square mile camp, with nowhere to hide. This was my darkest hour. I was forced to face my gender identity issues and accept the fact that I was deeply unhappy living my life as a man. Each day was a struggle, I felt like I was betraying myself and my family. I didn't want to go on, I didn't want to face this problem, I just wanted it to go away.

A glimmer of hope shone down as a coworker showed me an article about a transgender man who was serving in the Air Force. I pretended to be disinterested in the article as I was mortified of being found out. But when I had a moment alone, I scoured the internet to find and read the article. As I read, I learned about how he had found acceptance and happiness. Perhaps I could find that for myself? The fear of transition began to lose its hold over me.

Under that hot African sun, I came to terms with the truth. My life felt like it was slowly shattering as I sat in the corner of my office. My coworkers were unaware of the meltdown I was having. I had no one else to turn to so I reached out to my best friend. My hands shook as I messaged her and typed the words, stating I wanted to live my life as a woman. I stared at them on the screen, accepting my unhappiness and deciding that when I returned to America, I would transition.

The process began in early 2017. It was all going smoothly until July, when President Trump tweeted that "the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military."

My world was turned upside down. Was I going to be forced to choose between a job I loved serving my country or being allowed to live as who I truly am? Could I force myself back into the closet I had so recently escaped? Some of that same fear I had dealt with in Africa began to come back to me. Those first couple of months after the tweets were chaotic. No one was sure what it meant or what would happen. All we could do was sit and wait for clarification to come.

Thankfully, the tweets didn't stop my transition process, and I was able to start hormone replacement therapy in October of 2017. My two lives were meshed into one in January of 2018 as I had my name changed and the military updated my records to reflect my correct gender. It was so affirming to get a new ID card with my correct name on it!

Still, I worried. Would all I worked for be tossed away one day? Would I find myself having to start over somewhere new? The Air Force had become my family and I was scared that I would lose it.

Thankfully, the ban took a while to come into force. Implementation was halted by the courts for about two years, but on 12 April 2019 it became policy. Because I had come out when the original policy was still in force, I was told I would not be kicked out, but I was heartbroken all the same. When my commander at the time took me into his office and tried to focus on that glass-half full I couldn't help but think of the countless others who hadn't had the opportunity to come out before the ban was put into place. How could I look them in the eyes while living a life they desperately wanted for themselves?

Transitioning gave me peace and happiness I had been looking for all my life. To know that others who might be questioning their gender identity would see me as an example of how wonderful transitioning could be, but not be able to follow in my footsteps, was terrible. I was devastated each time an Airman reached out to me for help in transitioning and I had to break the news that under current policy, they couldn't.

While I couldn't do anything to help those members, I could do my best to make sure that when they were able to transition, all they found was acceptance. Early on, I decided to be open about being transgender, to be that role model I needed when I was younger. I pushed my comfort zone at work, by answering uncomfortable questions, by approaching ignorance with education. I did my best to be an example of why transitioning is important and how it allowed me to become a better Airman than I ever had been before.

All of that has led us to today. President Biden revoked the transgender ban and I personally sent each one of the Airmen who had expressed their desire to transition but were couldn't, a copy of the executive order that will allow them to be their true selves.

I hope that each one of them is able to find the happiness that I have found by transitioning and continuing to serve in the United States Air Force. And as I look forward to the future, I am excited to transfer to the United States Space Force—and work to build a culture of diversity and inclusion also in the newest branch of the Department of Defense.

Technical Sergeant Sabrina Bruce serves with the United States Space Force, and is currently stationed in the United Kingdom.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.