By Linley Sanders
There’s rarely a moment when Captain Jenn Peace can get some rest, especially these days. She spent the week of April 8, 2019, rushing between Congressional offices, transgender advocacy events, a television appearance on The View, and train rides home. Amid a vital period for LGBTQ+ rights — as a military ban on transgender enlistment went back into effect on April 12, and the Supreme Court announced on April 22 that it will make the next determination about whether federal law prohibits transgender discrimination — Peace is still trying to find a semblance of balance.
Peace's story serves as a focal point of the award-winning 2018 documentary TransMilitary, which also follows Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Corporal Laila Villanueva, and First Lieutenant El Cook working in the military while rapidly shifting rules on transgender service restrict them from serving under their gender identity. The hour-and-a-half film highlights how the servicemembers put careers and livelihoods at risk in order to stand up for an estimated 15,000 transgender soldiers who want to serve their country.
Peace now works as a strategic intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency after serving in the military for 15 years, where she worked as a company commander and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. She once hoped for a “normal, kind of quiet life” with her family. It seemed feasible once: a life without continuous speeches challenging America’s ban on transgender troops serving their country in the military — a kind of life where that level of endless media engagement wouldn’t be necessary, where she's simply a mom catching her oldest child’s band concert between phone calls and efforts to tidy up the house.
But she’s not there yet.
On April 12, the U.S. government began enforcing a new policy that effectively bans transgender people from joining the U.S. military. The system makes it a disqualifying act to have a “history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria” unless the person never transitions and follows specific military rules; any officer who is “unable or unwilling” to adhere to the sex they were assigned at birth will not be allowed to serve.
There is a grandfather clause that allows current transgender troops to continue with hormone treatments and transition plans if they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria before the April 12 deadline. Peace is allowed to serve because she came out as transgender and received medical care during the Obama administration, which makes her part of a small band of service members who are excluded from President Donald Trump’s ban.
“It's been a realization that we can't ever be quiet,” Peace told MTV News. “If it's got to be door-to-door, then that's what we've got to do. We just can't afford for anyone to stay silent.”
Peace had her own reckoning with whether to be visible and share her story in 2016, after President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a policy that would end the military's long-standing ban on transgender people serving in the military. Peace had been fighting for the change alongside SPART*A, an organization of transgender military members currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
“I thought about getting out,” Peace told MTV News. “But, what I realized is that if you want to make the military better, you have to be the kind of leader that you want to see. You can't change an organization from the outside. You can only change the military by being the type of soldier that you want there to be in the military.”
However, the White House's approval of transgender troops serving in the military reversed in July 2017 after Trump initially announced on Twitter that he would be installing a new ban to reverse the Obama administration's policy. The change was quickly challenged in court, but after several injunctions, it is now formally in effect. For transgender service members who were allowed to openly serve and received acceptance from their commanders and fellow service members, the decision represents a sharp step backward.
Fiona Dawson, the co-director of TransMilitary, says the film was created to help end the original transgender military ban that President Obama eventually lifted. Under President Trump's ban, they are “back to the original mission” of teaching people about the importance of transgender service and allowing them to meet Peace and her fellow servicemembers through the screen.
“As an advocate, I want to use the film to help educate and change hearts and minds, right to the highest level,” Dawson told MTV News. “How could any of us possibly sit by the sidelines when you've got someone like Jenn Peace putting herself out there constantly and demonstrating how unfounded and ridiculous like this ban is?”
The policy impacts everyone, Peace explains. Not only is excluding qualified transgender troops a national security issue across the board because it leaves the military short of its target troop numbers, but it also creates a harmful dynamic where people are falsely seen as “not qualified” simply because of their gender identity. And Peace worries that civilian transgender people will ultimately face even more discrimination and possibly violence because of the rescinded military rules as well.
“I thought for the longest time that we just had to go [to Congress] with facts and figures and numbers,” Peace told MTV News. “And all those are out. There's no one who cares that doesn't know what all the facts are. This should not be a partisan issue. It shouldn't be a bipartisan issue. This is a non-partisan issue about national security.”
As Peace continues to shed a light on transgender role models and advocate for Congressional support, she asks people to think about other groups who were once restricted from military service, including women, minority Americans, or openly gay service members. Peace notes that textbooks rarely remember people kindly for fighting against inclusion out of discrimination, fear, or hate.
“This is just that next step,” she tells MTV News. “This is going to be the generation that looks back on LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender rights and will have to account for what they’ve done. Did they speak out against discrimination and injustice against a minority class? It's going to be soon that we are going to look back and wonder why we did this to ourselves, why we did this to our own people.”
To learn more about issues affecting trans people, head to trans.mtv.com.