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Transgender airman buoyed by new Air Force policy

June 5, 2015 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Ehrenfeld)

When Senior Airman Logan Ireland recently decided to serve openly as a transgender airman, he knew that he risked his Air Force career because the military considers being transgender a medical condition that warrants involuntary separation.

But letting his chain of command know that he was born as a female was "absolutely, 150 percent worth it," said Ireland, who was recently featured in a documentary about him and his fiancée, Laila Villanueva, a transgender soldier.

"Sharing my story, it wasn't about me, it's about the 15,000 transgender troops that cannot serve openly – that are having a very difficult time, like my fiancée, Laila," Ireland told Air Force Times on Friday. "So I felt like it was my duty to share my story."

Now the Air Force has taken a step closer to allowing transgender airmen to serve openly by requiring a higher authority to approve discharges for enlisted airmen diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who identify as transgender.

"Though the Air Force policy regarding involuntary separation of gender dysphoric airmen has not changed, the elevation of decision authority to the director, Air Force Review Boards Agency, ensures the ability to consistently apply the existing policy," Daniel Sitterly, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs, said in a Thursday news release.

The Army made a similar move in March.

The Air Force's announcement caught Ireland by surprise.

"I am actually floored at that news," he said. "It's certainly been a long time coming, though I don't really know the full parameters of it as I am not a lawyer, but it sounds like it's a really good upswing in the current policy."

Ireland joined the Air Force in 2010 as a woman and began his transition to a man in 2012. He postponed the process until after he enlisted because he could not have joined the military as a transgender person.

Being a transgender service member has unique challenges, he said.

"Day in and day out, you're constantly worried about a discharge," said Ireland, a security forces airman. "So every day when I put on my boots and strap on my gun and duty belt, I'm at risk for a discharge – and that's the least of my worries in my personal job. Nobody should have to worry about that day in and day out.

"You constantly wonder who you can trust, who you can be honest with. You feel like your integrity is compromised with withholding this information and no airman – or any military member – wants to go through that."

Ireland sees the Air Force and Army changes on discharges as hopeful signs, but the fear of being involuntarily separated has not gone away, he said.

So far, the Air Force has made it clear that it wants to keep him. Before his recent deployment to Afghanistan, Ireland let his unit know that he was born female and asked where he would be roomed during his stateside training and then in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

"I basically left it in that leadership's hands and to my surprise, they were all very supportive of it and said: 'Look, you're a male to me; you're going to live in male barracks," Ireland said.

On Thursday, shortly before the Air Force announcement on discharges, the New York Times posted the documentary about Ireland and his fiancée: "Transgender, at War and in Love," directed and produced by Fiona Dawson.

"I have gotten feedback from it seems like every walk of life," Ireland said. "I got an email yesterday from a Vietnam vet, who never thought he would see this in his lifetime, and he's so happy. He was a closeted gay man, he said, for years, and struggled a lot with identity issues, and this gives him hope. And I've gotten kids that want to serve that don't feel like they fit in, necessarily, and they identify with my story. Those simple stories make it worthwhile for me."

While Ireland joined the Air Force because he wanted to be a security forces airman, he's interested in retraining into a medical career field, he said.

"My bachelor's is in sociology; I'm going for my master's in food and nutrition science; so going the medical route is kind of an obvious choice for me," he said. And I want to experience what it's like to do a retraining and go into a different career field in the Air Force. I want to make this a full 20-year commitment and I kind of want to see else it has to offer for me."

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