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With Transgender Military Ban In Place, Vets Reflect On Service And Their Struggle For True Identity

Photo of Tisha Olsen's military tattoos.
Rocio Hernandez
Tisha Olsen, a transgender woman, shares her experience during her time in the Marines. Earlier this year, the Trump administration passed a policy that restricted transgender people from serving in the military.

Having grown up in a military family, Tisha Olsen, 51, felt it would be an honor to lay down her life for the United States. 

But dying during her 22 years in the Marine Corps also meant that no one would have known who she really was. 

Today, Olsen identifies as a transgender woman. But back then, she couldn’t come out. She served in the Marines Corps from 1982 to 2005. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was in place during the last half of her service. That meant LGBTQ troops could be in the military as long as they kept their identities a secret. 

So Olsen had keep her true self hidden, but she said that often made her feel angry, hateful and vengeful. 

“I volunteered for every suicide mission I could go for,” the West Vallley City resident said. “If I died a glorious death in battle and training, I’m a hero and my little secret is safe.” 

Photo of veterans
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
(From left) Charlene Coleman, Tisha Olsen and Jacalyn Lawler pose for a photo at the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Coleman and Olsen identify as transgender women while Lawler identifies as non-binary.

Charlene Coleman, 68, served in the Navy during the Vietnam War before there was any acknowledgement of LGBTQ service members. Like Olsen, she had to hide who she was. She said that involved suppressing her feelings, learning to be cold and take on every dangerous job she could think of to prove her masculinity.

Coleman said that eventually led to the idea that death would be easier.

“It’s not as bad,” she thought. “At least you’re done with it. You don’t have to deal with it any longer.” 

But this March, she finally came out to the world as Charlene. She said her ongoing transition has not only made her happier, but also improved her health.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” the Salt Lake City resident said. “I have never been this excited about life than I can ever remember.”

Breeze Hannaford, a licensed clinical social worker at Salt Lake’s George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, thinks the treatment of LGBTQ service members has come a long way, but she says that this year things took a step back. In April, the Trump adminstration transgender military ban went into effect. The policy bans anyone with gender dysphoria who is taking hormones or has already undergone a gender transition from enlisting. 

Hannaford says that some transgender people already in the military are essentially grandfathered in. The Palm Center, a public policy think tank at UC Santa Barbara, found though that of the 14,700 transgender troops serving in the military, only a small percentage are actually protected.

Olsen thinks it's one of the most discriminatory policies that the U.S. government has ever implemented.

“The military doesn’t look at gender,” she said. “They look at how you do your job. I could have done my job perfectly as I am dressed now.” 

She gestured to her shoulder-length greying sandy-colored hair, red, white and blue top with lace sleeves and perfectly manicured nails. 

The ban was challenged in court, but a federal appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in their rulings this year

But Hannaford remains optomistic about the future of transgender service members because of those who were allowed to stay under the current policy. 

“They are setting the example and I think they are going to prove that they are just as good as everyone else in being the soldiers that they are there to be,” Hannaford said. 

Even though Olsen is retired from the military, she wants to continue helping others by speaking out and sharing her story. 

“I have to thank Charlene for paving the way for me, not because she was transgender but being a Vietnam veteran,” she said. 

“I am going to pave the way for the Marine that wants to be in heels and shooting a .50 caliber sniper rifle.”

Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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