A few weeks ago, President Trump tweeted that transgender troops would be banned from serving in the military. And as of Friday August 25th, he's signed a memo pledging to keep that promise and is prohibiting the Department of Defense from providing medical care to transgender service members.
In light of this, we’re taking a look at the experience of a transgender active duty service member in the Dover Air Force Base a few years ago.
Chapter 1: Joining the Air Force
39-year-old Ashley Register served in the U.S. Air Force over 17 years, all the while hiding her true identity. She grew up in North Carolina.
“For a long time, I was kind of the kid who got picked on in school," Register said. "It was just something I dealt with and I learned to live with for a long time, and it was terrible.”
In addition to being bullied, she was also sexually abused. She recently went to a seven-week inpatient program in Virginia to help her work through some past traumas she says she hadn’t confronted before. She says she wouldn’t have opened up if it hadn't been for that program.
“It was a hard program, it was hard to go and face all the things that you lock away inside that you never want to think about again, letting go of resentment that you’ve held for years," Register said. "And just learning to love myself for who I am and not for anything that’s happened to me in the past, or anything that might happen to me in the future or anything that somebody may think about me now. It doesn't matter.”
Ashley participated in junior ROTC in high school and joined the Air Force immediately after graduating.
“I kind of saw the military as really one of my only options because of how my childhood was," she said. "I didn’t really prepare myself for anything coming out of high school, but the military was there and I had family members that had been in the military.”
One family member, in particular, was a role model: her grandfather. He served in the Air Force during World War II.
“He was a bombardier, he didn’t talk about it a lot," Register said. "He had some traumatic experiences of his own during that time. He was probably the person in my family that I felt the most love from.”
As she started basic training in Texas, she embarked on a years-long process of suppressing her true identity of Ashley.
Chapter 2: Hiding
Register says she knew her whole life that she was transgender. But she never told anyone.
“That [serving in the Air Force] was my livelihood. I wasn’t going to trust that information with anyone," Register said. "You never know what can happen, somebody could get mad at you someday and decide to say something to someone else, or maybe they just have loose lips and they like to talk a lot. So the only sure way to have that security was to just keep it to yourself.”
While serving over 17 years as an active duty service member across the country – in New Jersey, Florida, Maryland and most recently, Delaware – Ashley would suppress any feminine tendencies in order to fit in.
“When you suppress it, you suppress it," Register said. "And it’s not even part of your life. When you play a part, you play it all the way. And it was difficult because in the back of my mind, I know how I really feel.”
She went so far as to join what she calls the "good old boys club."
“I stayed part of that group, and to do so I had to listen to them talk about what they thought was funny or relevant, and I had to play along with it," Register said. "Of course I didn’t offer up ideas, but if somebody would make a joke you’ve gotta laugh. If somebody goes on a little rant about how they feel about – it could be transgender or gays or whatever else – and I don’t agree with a word that they say – I feel like I can’t speak up and say anything to them because that would risk exposing myself to questioning and it’s too risky.”
But eventually, Ashley started to distance herself from that group.
Chapter 3: Deciding
Ashley met her partner Christina on the Dover Air Force Base in 2011. At the time, Ashley was working as a recruiter in Maryland and was attending a recruitment event in Dover. Christina was bartending.
Ashley says they hit it off immediately, and she got Christina’s phone number. They’ve been together for six years now, have moved to Dover, and have a five-year-old son together. But in 2014, Ashley made up her mind to fully transition, and wanted to tell Christina.
“I chickened out, I couldn’t tell her face-to-face. I tried for a month or two to get the courage up to tell her face-to-face and I just couldn’t do it," Register said. "I ended up sending her a text message which I know…[laughs]…and I was scared to death because I didn’t know how she was going to react. That one text could have meant that I lost my family and my kids because it happens to a lot of people.
But I got lucky. It took her a little while to reply to me, not too long…I was at work when I sent it, waiting around nervous you know, and when I finally got the text I went outside before I even opened it up, went to my car so I could just have some privacy, and the first words she wrote were ‘babe I love you.’ And I just felt the relief and emotions after reading those first words knowing that she was going to stay."
Christina says after reading Ashley’s text, she was also relieved.
“I’m like ok, that’s it? We can deal with that, and that’s how it was," she said. "It was like, well alright, I don’t love you any less, you’re still the same person."
Christina doesn't identify as a lesbian but says she doesn't understand why many others who find themselves in a similar situation break off marriages or relationships because of the intimacy factor. Christina says her relationship with Ashley has only grown since Ashley came out to her about transitioning and adds that for her, keeping their family together is much more important than intimacy.
“All of the things that brought us together before are just so much stronger now," she said. "When you go through something like this, it really does test your relationship. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the one person in this world there for me is her, and vice versa. And our kids know the same thing.”
Chapter 4: Transitioning
At first, Ashley wasn’t sure she was ready to fully transition. And since she was still keeping her new identity under wraps at the Dover Air Force Base, she consulted an endocrinologist about taking a low dose of estrogen.
“I felt more relaxed than I really had ever felt at any point in time in my life," Register said. "I felt more comfortable. It wasn’t long after that that I was like, this isn’t going to cut it. So I just went up to a normal dose.”
Ashley had to pay out of pocket for any transition-related health care expenses for over a year since being transgender wasn’t allowed in the military at the time.
She spent $600-$800 each month on visits to the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia, and on visits to a Wilmington gender therapist. And she says she’s lucky it wasn’t more, since the Mazzoni Center accepted payments on a sliding scale.
“I remember some of the medications – because I would see the original price on the receipts – and some of them were over $450 bucks for just one prescription," Register said. "There’s no way I could have afforded that.”
Another three years and Ashley would have qualified for retirement benefits through the Air Force, which kick in after 20 years of active duty service. But she’d had enough.
"I felt so strongly about what I needed – I knew what I needed to survive – I was willing to just let it all go without a fight," Register said.
Issues with a debilitating hip problem led to an honorable discharge offer with a severance package. And without any negotiation, she took it: closing the book on her life in the Air Force.
Chapter 5: Identity
One of the main reasons Ashley took her severance package without seeking a better offer is because she knew she’d at least be able to purchase a home. Knowing that – and adjusting to her new identity as Ashley – helps set her mind at ease.
“Somebody said this to me the other day, I forget who it was now but I was talking to someone and they said, you’re on the other side now," Register said. "And I am, I’m on the other side now. It’s not complete, but I’ve been a long way and I’ve gotten to a point where – if nothing changed from right at this point in time – I’d be happy."
Ashley's disability payments have recently risen to reflect her PTSD and major depressive disorder, in addition to her hip problems. That allows the family to finally pay all of their bills - despite Ashley’s partner, Christina, also being out of work with foot problems.
“We haven’t been at that point since I’ve been out, it’s been very hard scraping together here and there, stretching out tax returns and anything just to pay our five bills," Register said. It’s hard.
It’s harder to see how it affects my kids. I just hated to see them having to pay the price, too. If they want to go hang out with their friends at the movies, not having money to give them to go do that. Whereas if I wouldn’t have done this, we would have had that money. So I feel a little guilt. And I try to just keep in mind that they’re ok with it. But it doesn’t change the fact that I wish it could be different.”
Ashley and Christina take it one day at a time: figuring out as they go how to introduce themselves to friends who knew Ashley before Ashley, and at parent-teacher conferences and sporting events for their sons. Christina’s biggest fear is how people’s reactions may affect their sons.
“It makes my stomach turn to ever think that someone would ever think that they couldn’t send – when they always used to come here – that they couldn’t send their kids, trust that their kids would be safe in our home," Christina said. "And it’s sad that that is something that happens a lot. I don’t know how I could combat that, I really don’t.”
Chapter 6: Uncertainty
Register would eventually like to have gender reassignment surgery. But the Department of Veterans Affairs announced last November - just days after Presiden Trump was elected - they wouldn't be covering it anytime soon because of cost. Now, Trump is barring transgender recruits from serving in the military also because he says they cost too much. He signed a memo Friday also prohibiting the Department of Defense from providing medical care to transgender active duty service members.
“Opponents often raise financial objections to justify ongoing discrimination," said Aaron Belkin, Director of the Palm Center, a think tank dedicated to researching issues involving gender, sexuality and the military.
He says the VA’s and Trump’s cost arguments don’t add up: a 2016 RAND Corp. study found transition-related care for all active duty service members currently costs - at most - around $8.4 million per year. But that figure pales in comparison to the total amount the military spends on healthcare every year: around $50 billion. Additionally, firing all transgender active duty service members and hiring and training others to replace them could cost $960 million.
Another Palm Center study found that veteran transition-related care – including gender reassignment surgeries for transgender veterans – would cost about one one-hundredth of a percent of the VA’s annual budget.
But because the VA doesn’t cover those costs now, Ashley can only dream about what such surgeries would do for her. She hopes that someday she’ll be able to afford them, but right now they’re a far-off fantasy.
She's also worried about the future for current active duty transgender troops; under Trump's directive, it's unclear if they'll be able to serve or not.
“I can’t even imagine what some of these people are going through right now. Some of the people that made a decision to come out, and now they’re living under this threat that everything they’ve worked for serving our country – most likely honorably – is just up in the air," Register said. "How does someone live their life everyday not knowing what tomorrow’s going to be? Not knowing if they’re going to have a job? Not knowing if they’re going to be able to continue serving their country? Just because of the opinion of one person.”
The Dover Air Force Base issued a statement to Delaware Public Media saying that the Air Force "continues to work with the Department of Defense to address the new guidance provided by the Commander-in-Chief on transgender individuals serving in the military. In the meantime, there will be no modifications to current policy until the President's direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance. All Airmen will continue to be, and always will be, treated with dignity and respect."
Wilmington-based gender therapist Brett Herb says President Trump's transgender ban could have other costs: psychological ones. He worries that active duty transgender troops in need of mental health services won't seek help within the military if their treatment isn't covered, or if they fear their identities are under attack. That was definitely the case for Ashley Register: she says her mental health suffered while suppressing her identity.
"It really just got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t contain it anymore and I didn’t want to," Register said. "Because if I did, I think I would have gone down a dark road of not really loving life. And wherever that road could have taken me could have been really bad."