Jesse Avery remembers July 26 as the day she decided she would never bring her whole self to work. That was the day the president tweeted a decree that would effectively ban transgender people from serving in the military, reneging on a campaign promise he made to “fight for” the LGBTQ community.
Avery isn’t trans, but she is a lesbian who isn’t out among her fellow service members. As an active-duty officer since 2009 who’s now stationed in Washington, D.C., she’s quite familiar with restrictions on the LGBTQ community, having served for a full two years before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) was repealed in 2011. Avery’s uncertainty that the Trump Administration wouldn’t impose further restrictions on the military based on sexuality or gender identity helped her make up her mind. “I better just be safe and never let anyone have any evidence to speak out against me,” she says.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Avery (whose name has been changed here) recently shared what it’s like to serve in the U.S. armed forces without disclosing a crucial part of herself.
Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
Fast Company: What happened on the job the day Trump announced his plans to ban transgender service members, on July 26?
Jesse Avery: I had expected people to be openly in favor of [the ban], but there was none of that. What really struck me was that most people didn’t care at all–no one felt strongly but me. Inside, I just had this giant sinking feeling of, “Oh no, I just moved, and here’s a place where I can finally be a little more open,” then, “Nope, I’m good–things are going to stay the way they are.”
I’ve only ever met one other person who is gay in my entire time in this division. I know there are more, I’ve just never met them, so there was no one around to talk to at that point.
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FC: Have you had any chances to speak to this other person since then about how you were feeling?
JA: No, because I met them when I was stationed in another state and I was their instructor. I remember being in my office and thinking, “Oh gosh, I want to talk to them so bad about this stuff, but that would not be appropriate.”
FC: Are you out to anyone in your personal life, like friends and family?
JA: I had this strange journey with my sexuality. I grew up in a really religious household. No one in my family ever went to college–I was the first. I wasn’t sure [that I was attracted to women], but I remember being in college and hearing about the gay-marriage debate. The idea that a whole religious community was turned off played a big part in me stopping believing in everything.
I never told my family; we just don’t talk. I think they probably are in some serious denial. The only time they talk to me is to send me holiday and birthday cards that say, “Everything you are doing is a sin. Repent.” And it’s on a Christmas card that’s all red and green. I want to say, “I think you are missing the point.” But there are two friends that know.
FC: Did the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell influence your decision to tell other people?
JA: When it got repealed, it was a big relief, but I was so confused about why [it felt that way to me]. Then I started piecing it together, because it was around the time I had been thinking I know what I really am [as far as my sexual identity], and at the very least, I wasn’t going to lose my job [because of it].
FC: Have you experienced any sexism since you’ve been in the military?
JA: Not as much as people probably think. In eight years, only two people really pissed me off, and I think it’s really below the average, even for general life. Because of my name, a lot of people think I am a guy [while] interacting over email. One time I had been working on a project, coordinating a meeting over email, and when I showed up, the other officer said, “We really need a guy.” I couldn’t even believe it, and my boss said to him, “No, you don’t need a guy, you need to go sit down.”
I think one of the benefits of being in the military is that I have short hair and I don’t really wear makeup. In a civilian workplace, I would probably stand out a little more. Here a lot of women tend to wear short hair because it’s just annoying wearing a hat all the time. There are definitely some people on the other [side of the] spectrum who look more feminine, but I just kind of blend in.
FC: Have you ever witnessed discriminatory behavior toward the other LGBTQ service member you know?
JA: I’m friends with them on Facebook; we don’t talk a ton, but they post pictures all the time. They are very obviously out and either seriously dating someone or just got married. We have these big black-tie events, and I’ve seen them take a same-sex partner. In the photos, everyone in leadership looks like they are so glad they are there. Obviously, these are just pictures, but at least from the outside, their experience looks like one of people being really welcoming.
I think they joined after DADT got repealed, so maybe they’re just used to not worrying about it like I do. But also, in the military there are a lot of different people from different backgrounds. In order to make it work, you just have to drop [personal] stuff and focus on what you are doing.
FC: Has anything else given you cause to worry that you’ll be outed and discharged?
JA: There was one other person–my boss when I was stationed in the South. I didn’t tell him; I think he just kind of guessed. I didn’t like him at all, but he was really good at reading people and picking up details about them. I’m guessing he used his people reading superpower and figured it out over time.
The day of [Trump’s] inauguration, he asked me to come to his office and basically told me if I wanted to keep my job I should never tell anyone about myself. He said, “If you move to D.C., given this administration, you’re not going to want to say anything.” I don’t think he told anyone else. He was an asshole, but not that kind of asshole.
FC: What does that make you think about the future?
JA: That day, the day of the Inauguration, I remember seeing all the pictures of the chain of command, all the way up to the commander-in-chief. My whole career it’s been a picture of Obama, and I was always so proud to be serving a president who was very intelligent, thoughtful, and nuanced, and had this view of the world that was inclusive. It was not perfect, but he was trying hard to move it in a better way. Even with an organization that is inherently violent like the military, I believed it was entrusted to a good person.
Now, the only hope is [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis. He’s pretty well-respected and has stood up a number of times to say we should respect everyone in the military. I guess in some small way, I hope he’s being an advocate for inclusivity [Editor’s note: Mattis established a panel of defense experts in August to study the potential impact of a transgender military ban, effectively delaying a policy change Trump asked to be implemented by next February. On October 30, after Fast Company‘s conversation with Avery, a federal judge ruled to block the ban].
FC: Do you think a federal policy change in the other direction, affirming the right of transgender people to serve openly, would need to happen for you to feel safe enough to come out at work?
JA: Yes, it would take a federal policy change. Right now, I work with a small group of people who are completely wonderful, and I have no doubt they would either not say anything if they might not agree [with my sexuality], or they would be completely supportive, so it would be fine to tell them. But I would start worrying that if there was an additional policy change on a federal level, they would be put in a position where they might have to say something about me, and that is not a great thing to do to them. I just don’t trust the current federal political environment.