Senior Airman Sterling Crutcher is married, has a seven-week-old daughter and has been in the United States Air Force since 2015. He began openly serving as a transgender man when the Obama administration changed the rules in 2016 while he was serving at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, LA.
“I ended up coming out there. Received a lot of expert support from my command out there, my supervision and everything, which was great and my peers were fantastic. They really didn’t care,” Crutcher told VICE News. “They were like, ‘Cool as far as we’ve gotten to know you, seem like you’re a really good airman. You’re competent. That’s all we care about really.’”
But in 2017, President Trump changed the policy again, via tweet. Effectively starting the process of banning transgender individuals from serving openly in the miliary again. “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.
The tweets were turned into an actual formal policy that went into effect on April 12th of this year, despite four ongoing federal lawsuits in various courts around the country.
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. In an attempt to get past claims of discrimination, 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.
As for people like Crutcher, who were already in the military and openly serving before the policy was put in place, they are grandfathered into the Obama-era rules, which should allow them to continue in their careers as well as commission and ascend to higher ranks. But Crutcher is still worried that his status will hinder his career.
“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. …There are possibilities that I could go officer and I could pursue the career that I really want to do or they could deny me and say, ‘no because it would require a waiver.’ So there’s there’s a lot of ifs.”
Navy Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann, the head of SPARTA, a non-profit that supports and advocates for transgender servicemembers, said that Crutcher’s concern was one many of the 14,700 active duty and reservist transgender troops had after then-Defense Secretary James Mattis released a 2018 memo about what would be the military’s approach to the issue of transgender servicemembers.
“There was a general ban on ascension with the Mattis memo. That meant that the servicemember who was enlisted couldn’t commission because commission was considered an ascension and they were working through some of that policy changes. The new policy did clarify, yes you will be able to commission,” Dremann said.
That gives Crutcher some comfort but doesn’t change the fact that in some ways he and other openly transgender members of the military are political footballs. His wife is hopeful that the political tide will go their way again.
“The administration isn’t forever. So 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. So I say, ‘Ride it out. Continue to make some change.’ And we’ll see what 2020 brings us. But that’s my opinion,” Aimee Crutcher said.
But it’s 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. “Nothing gets changed from the outside. Yes voices are heard. Advocates are heard from the stage and that’s great. But a lot of change within any organization happens from the inside,” Crutcher told VICE News.
“I mean if I leave now, and this is something I’m actually actively struggling with. If I leave now, if I really leave, it I almost feel like for myself I’m going to be giving up on me and I’m going to be giving up on those around me. And I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to set that example I guess.” He continued, “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.”
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