BOSSIER CITY, Louisiana — Senior Airman Sterling Crutcher is married with a 7-week-old daughter, and has been in the United States Air Force since 2015. He also began serving as an openly transgender man in 2016, thanks to a rule change under the Obama adminstration. On Friday, that brief period of relative safety officially ended.
Back in 2017, President Trump suddenly reversed the policy. With three tweets, he effectively started the process of banning transgender individuals from serving openly in the miliary again. The ban went into effect on April 12, despite four ongoing federal lawsuits against the move in courts around the country.
“My immediate reaction was, I was devastated. I was. It broke me. It was like, I'm about to get kicked out of the military,” Crutcher said.
For Crutcher, the military had turned out to be an accepting environment.
“I ended up coming out there — received a lot of support from my command out there, my supervision and everything, which was great, and my peers were fantastic,” he said. “They were like, ‘Cool as far as we've gotten to know you, seems like you're a really good airman. You're competent. That's all we care about, really.’”
The current policy disqualifies anyone with gender dysphoria — a diagnosable difference between one’s expressed gender and biological sex — from enlisting in the military. It also disqualifies anyone who’s had cross-sex hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery. The military says that people who identify as transgender can still enlist, but they have to do it as the sex they were assigned at birth and adhere to their standards for that gender.
Many who were already in the military and serving openly before the policy was put in place, like Crutcher, are grandfathered into the Obama-era rules, which should allow them to continue in their careers as well as ascend to higher ranks. But even after finding out he would be able to stay in the military, Crutcher is worried the rollback of transgender rights indicates his gender expression will now hinder his career growth.
“Things change so quickly, especially when politics move around so much. You can never be sure of the orders that are going to come down,” he said. “There's a lot of ifs.”
Crutcher is one of about 14,700 active-duty and reservist transgender troops, according to Sparta, a nonprofit that supports and advocates for transgender service members. The organization’s head, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, said everyone shared Crutcher’s concern when then-Defense Secretary James Mattis released a memo about the military’s approach to transgender servicemembers in February 2018.
“There was a general ban on ascension with the Mattis memo,” he said. That meant transgender service members wouldn’t be able to commission as officers. A policy issued in March of this year clarified that transgender military members could indeed be promoted to officers.
Crutcher’s wife hopes Trump’s decision will be reversed by a future president. “We've sucked it up and he's been serving for this administration and this government his entire enlistment — well, except for those few short months under the other president,” Aimee Crutcher said. “So I say, ‘Ride it out, continue to make some change, and we'll see what 2020 brings us.’ But that's my opinion.”
Still, it can be difficult for civilians to understand why Crutcher would want to stay in a military that wouldn’t accept him if he were trying to enlist today. His answer is: “A lot of change within any organization happens from the inside.”
Leaving now would feel like giving up on himself and other transgender service members, Crutcher said. “If my daughter grows up and has to stand up for something, I don't want her to look at it and go, ‘Well, I'll just move on.’ You know, if it's that important to you, stick it out.”
This segment originally aired April 16, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.