In 2010, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy was repealed. This Clinton-era policy prohibited homosexual and bisexual individuals serving in the armed forces from disclosing their sexual orientation. Repealing the policy was considered a landmark win for the LGBTQ community–and for lesbians, gay men, and bisexual individuals, it was. However, not all members of our community benefited from DADT’s repeal. Transgender people serving in the armed forces, an estimated 15,000 were forced to remain silent about their identities.
Fiona Dawson, a vocal advocate in the fight to repeal DADT, didn’t find this out until years after the policy was repealed. “I felt a bit ashamed that as an advocate, I hadn’t known that,” she admits. That feeling led her to begin advocating to end the ban against transgender service members, saying, “We need to finish the job.”
To Dawson, “finishing the job” meant a years-long multimedia project to chronicle stories of transgender military members with her production team, Gabriel Silverman and Jamie Coughlin. This included collecting footage that chronicled the lives of two trans service members and their different experiences, both positive and negative.
In 2015, that footage eventually became an opinion documentary commissioned by The New York Times, entitled “Transgender, at War and in Love.” It follows Logan Ireland, Senior Airman for the U.S. Air Force during his deployment in Kandahar, and his then-fiancée, Corporal Laila Villanueva. The first few minutes show a good-natured Logan smiling shyly at Laila over a Skype call while he was deployed in Kandahar. Later, we see him showing off his tattoos to children in Afghanistan. “Here in Afghanistan—a war zone—it’s like a vacation,” he says, “because I can be myself.”
The insightful and thoughtful short documentary became the New York Time’s most viewed, and received an Emmy nomination. Dawson was also named an “LGBT Artist Champion of Change” by the White House. Crucially, on the same day of the short film’s release, Air Force leaders announced that they would elevate the decision as to whether to discharge transgender members to the Pentagon.
Dawson and her team continued to work on the project, expanding to include two more TransMilitary members, Captain Jennifer Peace and First Lieutenant El Cook. Their stories painted a picture of a military life as rewarding as it is heartbreaking. Even when receiving high praise from their commanding officers—and even being promoted—the fear of being outed or discharged hung heavy over their heads and hearts.
In June 2016, Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the ban on transgender service members was lifted. Dawson and her team were overjoyed, especially with two of the subjects getting married, and others being promoted. The TransMilitary production team continued editing the film with a “happy ending” closing sequence in mind–but the win was short-lived.
On July 26, 2017, Donald Trump tweeted that transgender people would not be allowed to serve the military “in any capacity.” His vague directions made an immediate implementation difficult, and has allowed for lawyers to prepare cases in defense of TransMilitary members.
Four months later, TransMilitary debuted. It won the Audience Award for Best Feature Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival and received a plethora of other awards and nominations. In the iTunes “Documentaries” category, it was in the Top 15. The TransMilitary cast and crew have continued to speak out against Trump’s proposal to reinstate the ban.
TransMilitary is available on iTunes TV, Logo Channel, Amazon, and other media platforms.