WASHINGTON — As legislative and court battles rage over the question of whether transgender people are fit to serve in the military, two service members with ties to Maryland are at the heart of the fight.
Regan Kibby, a student at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Brock Stone, stationed at the U.S. Army's Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, are plaintiffs in two of the cases working their way through federal court.
After the July announcement by President Donald Trump that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity, transgender individuals currently serving as well as prospective service members are left in limbo while the Department of Defense reviews the policy.
"When I came out as transgender I was relying on formal policies by the Navy and the secretary of defense that service members could no longer be separated or dismissed for being transgender," Kibby said in a declaration filed in Doe v. Trump in Washington, D.C. against the ban.
Kibby, 19, is a student double-majoring in English and history at the Naval Academy and one of several plaintiffs involved in the suit. His goal upon graduation and receipt of his commission is to serve as a surface warfare officer on a naval ship.
After the 2015 announcement by the Department of Defense that soldiers could no longer be discharged based on gender, Kibby began to allow himself to explore his own identity. With the support of commanding officers, Kibby came out as transgender and began developing a treatment plan and medical leave of absence in order to transition with support of the academy.
Now, even completing his education is uncertain due to the ban.
"I have not been able to obtain any assurances from my chain of command about my return to the academy or my future military service," Kibby said in the declaration. "They have been silent because they have not known how the previously announced policies will change."
When Kibby saw the president's tweets announcing the ban on transgender service, he said he was "devastated."
"The entire future I had planned for myself was crumbling around me," said Kibby. "To be told that you are less than, that you are not worthy, is a terrible feeling."
Maryland joined 14 other states and the District of Columbia last week to file a joint amicus brief in support of Kibby and the plaintiffs involved in Doe v. Trump. It is one of three cases filed around the country seeking to block the implementation of the ban.
"The attorneys general strongly support the rights of transgender people to live with dignity, to be free from discrimination, and to participate fully and equally in all aspects of civic life, and argue that these interests are all best served by allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military," the office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a press release.
The friend-of-the-court brief argues that the proposed service ban is unconstitutional and interferes especially with the readiness of the National Guard, which operates as a hybrid blend of state and federal service members.
The ACLU of Maryland filed a separate lawsuit, Stone v. Trump, on behalf of six transgender service members in the United States District Court of Maryland on Aug. 28.
Stone, a resident of Anne Arundel County in Maryland, is the lead plaintiff in the case.
Stone is stationed as a computer analyst at Fort Meade, said Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project.
"Brock Stone has an incredibly story, as do all our plaintiffs," Block said. "A lot of these folks, including Brock, planned to serve until retirement and now they are threatened with having their entire careers cut short."
"Brock has extensive military training and is a decorated service member," Block said. "Just his story alone makes any notion that these service members might not be fully deployable false."
Stone has served in the Navy for 11 years, including deployment to Afghanistan. He began to receive medical care for his gender transition in 2016 after the announcement of open transgender service.
"These men and women served admirably and honorably under active duty," Block said. "Under Trump's ban, they feel like they're being pushed back into the shadows again."
Block stressed to Capital News Service the importance of realizing that transgender service members are being singled out, beyond the same care and treatment that soldiers with medical disabilities receive.
"They are not even being treated the same way," Block said. "They are being deemed administratively unfit for duty."
According to the case documents, Stone was close to finalizing a treatment plan with support of doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, that would have included "medically necessary surgery in 2018" for his gender transition.
Now, the entire treatment plan is on hold.
"I can't imagine serving in the military and accomplishing what they've accomplished," Block said. "To have the courage to step forward like this when you're under attack from your own commander-in-chief is just incredibly brave."
Many of Maryland's leaders have been outspoken against the implementation of this ban. On July 28, Maryland Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin joined a bipartisan group of more than 40 senators in a letter opposing Trump's Twitter announcement.
On Oct. 10, more than 100 members of the House of Representatives, including Maryland Democratic Reps. Anthony Brown, John Delaney and Jamie Raskin, sent a letter to the Department of Defense requesting all communication around the ban. Their goal is to find "whether the president's transgender ban announcement reflected a breakdown in communication."
Paula Neira, a veteran naval officer and transgender woman, believes that the Trump policy will not deter transgender people from joining the military. Neira chose to resign her commission in 1991, after graduating from the Naval Academy with distinction in 1985, in order to live authentically as a woman.
"They'll hide who they are because wanting to serve your country is so strong that you'll make those compromises," Neira said. "You'll tell yourself that 'I can hold this. I can keep this compartmentalized.' Thousands of us did it. My story is not unique in that way."
Neira served in the days before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was implemented. She now works as a nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
"My calling in life was to be an officer in the Navy, and my oath of office did not end when I hung up my uniform" Neira said.
Neira told Capital News Service she did not begin to accept her gender identity until she was 28 years old.
"The running joke in my life is that I want to be this dispassionate advocate like what lawyers are supposed to be, to have this steely-eyed, cold warrior persona. And it just doesn't work," Neira said. "Even now, 20-something years later, I can't talk about this without having my voice crack. The pain of having to sacrifice my career is still so raw."
"It was the hardest decision of my life," she added. "And it was because for no other reason than ignorance and bigotry, which is right back where we're at right now with what the White House wants to do."
Neira cautioned lawmakers and advocates alike not to lose sight in these conversations of the central issue of transgender military service: namely, service.
"You're talking with a group of people who are dedicated to defending the country and serving with honor, and with that, the mission always comes first," Neira said. "You're not talking about transgender people who happen to be in the military. You're talking about soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines and Coast Guardsmen who happen to be transgender. It's that simple."