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In an undated photo, members of Fort Carson's 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment salute during a memorial ceremony on post to remember all Cavalry Troopers killed during the squadron's history. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When the news broke Monday that President Joe Biden repealed the ban on transgender people serving in the military, Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik felt a weight was lifted from her shoulders.

“You just kind of get used to it until one day somebody’s like, ‘Hey, let me take that for you,’” Stehlik said.

Through 13 years of military experience — from West Point to Ranger school to a tour in Afghanistan — Stehlik has worked her way through the ranks to her current position as a physical therapist stationed at Colorado’s Fort Carson, where she began coming out as a transgender woman.

Army Captain Alivia Stehlik photographed at a military ball. (Courtesy Alivia Stehlik)

There are about 15,000 people serving in the military right now who identify as transgender, according to advocacy organization SPART*A. Following Monday’s executive order, prospective recruits will no longer need to hide their gender identity when they seek to enlist.

The ban, first enacted by Trump in 2017 and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019, came in reaction to Obama-era guidance in 2016 that opened the door for trans people to join the military. 

For decades prior to the 2016 order, there was no explicit ban on trans people becoming servicemembers, but those who were out as such were considered medically disqualified. That was the state of affairs in 2010, when Stehlik first realized she was trans. 

“I knew it was just bad,” Stehlik said. “You weren’t supposed to be whatever it was that I was, you can just tell.” She waited until the 2016 order to begin a year-long process of coming out publicly, starting with supervisors who could authorize transition-related medical care.

The ban used multiple arguments as justification: trans people were unable to do the job; their medical care would be too expensive or complicated; it would cause national security issues. During a U.S. House Armed Services Committee hearing in February 2019, Stehlik testified that none of that has been true. 

“It’s under this guise of readiness,” Stehlik told The Colorado Sun. “But really what you’re saying at the end of the day is, we’re not going to give you the appropriate medical care for the things that are going on with you, which to me is a travesty.”

The ban grandfathered in trans people who had come out of the closet before April 12, 2019, so Stehlik was able to continue her transition. But she said it felt awful to tell trans soldiers and prospective recruits that they weren’t allowed to serve openly in their identity.

“How do I tell a young soldier, I want to take care of you and do the right thing, and you can’t transition because that’s what the policy says, and I can because I came out before you?” Stehlik said. “That to me was criminal, really.”

Stehlik counts herself lucky that she’s had the privilege to get the care she needs relatively easily as she’s come out publicly.

“You kind of just have to live in it and hope that other people treat you OK,” Stehlik said, and for the most part they do, whether because they generally accept trans people, or because she usually outranks them. 

In her current rank, Stehlik can personally go to someone who is just a couple ranks higher and get authorization for medical care, which for many trans individuals might include hormone replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries. 

She notes that younger members don’t have that ease of access to navigate the military bureaucracy, especially since transition-related care requires authorization from a higher ranked official than other significant medical care. With the ban now repealed, Stehlik hopes to see that change going forward.

“If the recovery time isn’t different, why is that the case?” Stehlik said. “We should be the same as everybody else.”

Biden’s executive order gives the Department of Defense 60 days to report its progress in reversing the ban, including correcting the record for those dismissed because of their gender identity. Stehlik thinks the repeal is a good start and is eager to see more than just a tolerance of differences in the armed services.

“I don’t actually want all of my people to act or be the same,” Stehlik said. “If we were to value that and value people’s whole selves, I think we would see a pretty remarkable difference in what we’re able to do and how we’re able to do it. People would learn to think differently and value different solutions in a way that I don’t think we generally have done very well.”

But that’s a long fight, and for today, Stehlik and so many other soldiers are celebrating.

“It’s welcome back to the team, in this big meaningful way,” Stehlik said. “Today is the best day in two years.”

Lucy Haggard was a TRENDS Reporting Fellow from August 2020 to May 2021 with The Colorado Sun. Email: Twitter: @lucy_haggard