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Transgender Army Officer: Biden Order 'Feels Like Culmination Of Years’ Worth Of Work'

Capt. Alivia Stehlik
Michael de Yoanna
Feb. 2019 file photo of Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik, who is transgender. She works as a physical therapist at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs.

Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik said she was grinning Monday as President Joe Biden reversed his predecessor’s ban of most transgender people from the military.

“This just feels like the culmination of years’ worth of work to get here,” Stehlik said. “It’s pretty overwhelming.”

Stehlik is a physical therapist at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. She’s also among many transgender people around the country to praise Biden for an executive order allowing “all Americans” who are qualified to serve in the military to do so.

For years, Stehlik has watched policies for transgender service members shift. She decided to transition from male to female after Ash Carter, the defense secretary under former President Obama, lifted the military’s ban on transgender troops.

"I left work on a Friday and then I showed up on Monday with a different name and different pronouns and some makeup because I didn't have long hair at the time and folks were remarkably gracious and lovely and kind and it was wonderful,” Stehlik said.

RELATED STORY: Transgender Soldier At Fort Carson: 'I Would Love To Stay'

Carter said that the military should open its doors to the best talent and that transgender troops are part of the equation. Not long after Stehlik transitioned, a new administration took over and former President Trump decided to change policy.

Trump tweeted on July 26, 2017 that the "United States Government will not accept or allow ... Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military."

The tweet created confusion in the military, leading Stehlik to say at the time, "I would love to stay. I think that I have a lot to offer."

The Trump administration’s transgender policy ended up being more nuanced, affecting roughly 9,000 or so troops who identified at one point in a defense survey as transgender in different ways. For instance, because Stehlik transitioned under the policy announced by Ash Carter, she and others like her were allowed to stay.

But transgender people who had transitioned were barred from enlisting and those already in the military were not allowed to transition unless they were granted a waiver. Advocates for transgender service members said the waiver policy was convoluted and said they only knew of one case that was granted: a Navy officer who settled a lawsuit.

The nonpartisan Palm Center, which promotes the study of LGBTQ issues, dubbed the Trump policy as an “insidious” ban, likening it to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that silenced gay and lesbian troops a generation ago.

"Transgender service members will no longer be subject to the possibility of discharge or separation on the basis of gender identity,” a White House fact sheet on Biden’s executive order said. “Transgender service members can serve in their gender when transition is complete. Transgender service members should know that they are accepted throughout the U.S. military."

The order, effective yesterday, stops discharges based on gender identity and requires top commanders to locate any troops who were kicked out for that reason. It also allows troops to transition genders and provides medical support.

Stehlik said that for months, she’s been talking to a handful of troops asking her about transition, but she wasn’t sure what to tell them. Biden’s order, she said, changes that.

“Now I can tell soldiers, ‘Hey, I know how to help you and I know how to help your command help you,’” Stehlik said. “‘You can do this. There is a way. Here are the forms that are required. Here’s who needs to sign that. Here’s how we get you through this process.’”

There was opposition from conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, which supported the Trump administration’s policy. The foundation argued that a reversal will hurt military readiness because some transgender troops have gender dysphoria, which can increase the risk of suicide. Groups who advocate for transgender people argue that there is an increased risk of suicide among troops who feel that their identity is not accepted in the military.

Both sides pointed to studies and Biden addressed the debate over them by stating that he saw “substantial evidence” that allowing transgender troops to serve has no “negative impact” on the military. The White House also said it thinks the policy change is the right thing to do and in the national interest.

Stehlik said in the almost two years of uncertainty she’s faced up until Monday, her peers in the military have been supportive. She said they haven’t made her transition an issue. What’s important to them, she said, is the quality of her work.

“I think that’s the same with all of the command teams I run into here,” she said. “They’re like, as long as you can do your job, that’s what matters to us.”

As debate has swirled over the policy in political circles, Capt. Stehlik just kept doing her job. She learned recently that she will soon be promoted to major.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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