By Kaely Monahan, October 2018 Issue.

When the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy – the discriminatory ban on gay and lesbian service members – was lifted, the LGBTQ community and its allies celebrated. However, for troops who identified as transgender, there was an abrupt realization that the benefits afforded to their gay and lesbian counterparts were not extended to them.

In the opening sequence, TransMilitary points out that there are an estimated 15,500 transgender individuals currently serving in the U.S. military, making the military the largest employer of trans people in the country.

From there, the feature-length documentary follows the events spanning from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter being sworn in on Feb. 17, 2015, through the appeals process following the current commander in chief’s tweets July 26, 2017. (Meet the directors of TransMilitary here.)

But it’s not just a collection of headlines and archival footage. Directors Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson capture the stories of four transgender service members as they navigate deployments, dress and appearance standards, advocacy and family life.

We first meet U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Logan Ireland, who’s serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He shares how he’s been able to work and live just like any other guy on this deployment as well as his apprehensions about returning home to a command that has him still documented as female.

U.S. Army Corporal Laila Villanueva, Airman Ireland’s fiancée, enlisted at age 17 and was trained to become an interrogator who followed the government’s most-wanted list. The devastating irony of her job comes to light when she shares that she believes her unit is building a case against her. The documentary follows her through her out-processing as she prepares to be medically retired, an honorable discharge, after 12 years of service.

“… I won’t be in to see that [policy] change, but I’ll be alive to see that change,” she says in a Skype call with Ireland.

Army Captain Jennifer Peace, who is stationed with her wife and three children at Joint Base Lewis–McChord, in Washington, shares her experiences being caught between male and female dress and appearance regulations and gender-segregated facilities. After being assigned to a new unit, she was ordered to speak to a local psychiatrist whose assessment was that she was not transgender (out of concern that an accurate diagnosis would lead to her discharge).

Army Captain Jennifer Peace.

“The military promotes family involvement so much … I was told that I wasn’t allowed to attend any more unit functions,” she shares. “I’ve put in 11 years of my life … I deserve to be here as much as anyone else. This is my Army, too.”

Army First Lieutenant El Cook, a West Point graduate, is preparing for his third deployment, his second to Iraq. He’s surrounded by a very accepting family in Clarksville, Tennessee, including his mother, who is a reverend. He shares that he’s not out to anyone in his unit, because it’s not simple.

“Imagine … I’m deploying with you and I tell you this thing,” he shares. “Now we’re scheduled to be roommates, you have to sleep in the bed next to me … I’ve been the same person …  but now you’re uncomfortable and you have a name for it. It becomes very much not about my comfort or my safety, it becomes about your comfort and your safety. Because you feel threatened that I’m the same person I was yesterday …”

Army First Lieutenant El Cook (left).

It’s clear that each individual is committed to putting service before self, by dedicating their lives to serving their country, but the system has worked against them for decades.

While 18 countries allow transgender troops to serve openly, including Canada, Bolivia and Australia, the U.S. does not. Or rather, as the documentary explains, the policy is on hold. Still, every other federal department and agency in the U.S., including the CIA and FBI, allow transgender personnel.

Told from the perspective of those who’ve volunteered to put their lives on the line, TransMilitary reveals the very personal day-to-day effects the trans military ban has on these four service members, as well as their parents, spouses and even friends and coworkers.

Silverman and Dawson weave together a stunningly intimate story that follows the political ups and downs of the policy surrounding trans individuals serving in the military as they fear for the future of their careers.

As the film comes to a close, these final words cross the screen, “As of February 2018 the situation is not resolved …”

TransMilitary screens at noon Sept. 29 as part of the Desperado LGBT Film Festival. For more information on TransMilitary, visit For additional details on the Desperado LGBT Film Fest, click here.

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