Hayden in Army Reserve uniform

Hayden, now 18, remembers visiting his grandfather in Dayton, Ohio, as a child and listening to stories about what it was like serving with the Air Force in the Vietnam War. Hayden marveled at the photos which hung on a wall next to his grandfather’s war patches and flight suit. Those visits made Hayden want to serve himself one day.

Last year, he realized that dream when he enlisted in the Army Reserves. Around that same time, Hayden also realized he was trans. His assigned sex at birth was female but he identifies as male. (Mississippi Today refers to Hayden by only his first name out of respect for his privacy.)

However, a directive signed by President Donald Trump in August could ban transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military, meaning Hayden would have to continue to hide his identity, as he does now, or give up on his dream altogether.

Growing up, Hayden didn’t spend much time in one place. He was born in Russia, but soon after was adopted by an Atlanta couple. His father’s engineering job moved the family to France for three years, then back to Atlanta. They finally settled in Oxford the year Hayden began 8th grade.

Hayden’s childhood hobbies foreshadowed his military career: playing Call of Duty on Xbox, feeling the thrill of simulated combat, as well as drawing pencil portraits of soldiers. He’s hoping his sketches (such as the one below) can earn him a scholarship at Mississippi State University, where he’s currently a freshman.

One of Hayden’s military drawings.

(Hayden clarifies one point about gaming: “When you’re in boot camp, they tell you everything in Call of Duty is completely wrong.”)

Recruiters from the Army visited Hayden’s high school in Oxford, and he learned about a signing bonus to help pay for college. After taking extra electives, Hayden graduated from high school in December of his senior year and started boot camp in January.

But it was at the start of senior year when Hayden realized he was trans; since enlisting, Hayden has had to get used to sleeping in the female barracks. 

“When I was younger I didn’t understand, ‘Why am I not like the other boys?’ But I kind of just put it in the back of my head,” he said.

In high school, Hayden spent a lot of time with the school’s gay-straight alliance group.

“I had better resources and started to learn about the different terms, what being trans means, what it’s like to question your sexuality versus questioning your identity, the difference between gender and sex and all that,” he said.

Hayden graduated from basic training at Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood last April. 

“My grandfather was really excited. He came to my graduation,” Hayden said. “He wore his Air Force hat and everything. He was pretty proud of me. It had been a pretty long time since he had been to someone’s graduation or military ceremony.

“When I had a program with the ROTC in high school, I would always go down to his house in my uniform and show him, and we’d compare our different ribbons to each other. That was pretty cool do to. We always talked about the differences between the Army and the Air Force. I think we have a pretty good relationship, and I think a lot of it’s built off the military experience.”

Hayden was assigned to the Reserve base in Millington, Tenn., where he reports once a month. He began college classes at Mississippi State in July. But a few weeks later, President Donald Trump tweeted his wishes to ban transgender individuals from serving “in any capacity” in the military.

Trump’s Aug. 25 directive reversed a 2016 initiative by former President Barack Obama lifting a ban on transgender troops serving openly. Currently, the directive forbids new transgender recruits; by March. 23, 2018, the military will not cover sex reassignment surgery and, depending on the results of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ panel study, currently enlisted transgender troops such as Hayden may not be able to serve at all.

There are currently more than 15,000 transgender military members, according to the Human Rights Campaign, making the Department of Defense the largest employer of transgender people in America.

Kara Stanford, 32, also attends Mississippi State and is one of 134,000 living transgender veterans in American, according to the HRC.

“I served nine years, earned my Combat Infantry Badge and multiple awards,” said Stanford, who was deployed twice to Iraq with the U.S. Army. Her other awards include an Iraq Campaign Medal and an Overseas Service Ribbon. She says the Combat Infantry Badge is her “point of pride” because it’s given only to infantry who react well under enemy fire. 

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Stanford said about President Trump’s directive. “It did make me angry. Trump doesn’t listen to people who know what they’re talking about, he only listens to people he agrees with.”

“(President Trump) speaks about the burden and the cost of transgender people in the military. What is that based on?” said Malaysia Walker, coordinator of the Transgender Education and Advocacy Program for the ACLU of Mississippi. “He bases that on nothing, because if you look at it, the cost of transgender people to be in the military is almost zero. And no one has heard of any altercations or misfortunes with trans people being in the military.”

A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation estimated that offering gender transition-related health care would create between $2.4 million and $8.4 million in costs annually, or a 0.04 to 0.13 percent increase of the military’s current health care expenditures.

The ACLU and the Human Rights Commission each filed lawsuits against the directive.

“The cost for offering comprehensive inclusive health care to transgender service members is negligible,” said Sarah McBride, the HRC’s national press secretary. “In fact, it costs more for the president to take two trips to Mar-a-Lago than it does for the Pentagon to provide medically necessary health care to transgender troops. So this was just a pretext for discrimination.”

Hayden earns roughly $400 a month from his engineering position with the Reserves, and he was planning to use that money to pay for hormone replacement therapy. His other options are using Tricare, a military health care service, or his parents’ insurance. Tricare requires a psychiatrist’s note to permit hormone replacement therapy (no one uses that, Hayden said), and he isn’t sure he should come out to his parents.

So he has decided to to hold off on the therapy because, as he puts it, “what if they start kicking people out?”

Hayden hopes to join the active duty after college, lead soldiers and deploy overseas.

“I love serving my country,” he said. “I love having that family [at the base]. I always say, I don’t see black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, whatever, everyone’s green to me in the Army because our uniforms are green. When I put on my uniform I’m in the Army, and I don’t let stupid comments get in the way of completing my mission. 

Just because I go see a doctor more than most people, just because I ask to go to a different restroom, doesn’t mean I can’t serve or protect my country. It wasn’t a problem until they made it a problem.”

Hayden added that the president, despite being his boss, may not have the best perspective on the issue.

“Trump didn’t serve in the military,” he said. “He got out of the draft twice. So for him to be picky about who serves, he’s got a lot of dirt under his nose for saying that.”

Walker, of the ACLU, and who is also trans, mentioned a contradiction between Trump’s policy and his campaign promises.

“I’m fortunate enough to say that transgender people, like myself, know how to fight,” Walker said. “We’ve been fighting our whole lives for freedom. We’ve been fighting our whole lives to be included. We’ve been fighting our whole lives for acceptance. This is just another thing that we have to fight for.”

Hayden wants to come out to his fellow soldiers; it would help explain his attire and his short hair. But for now, he’s waiting on the White House’s next move, which may not happen until March.

Although he has been cautious about who he comes out to, Hayden says he doesn’t think his veteran grandfather would mind.

“I don’t think he’d be disappointed in me, I think he’d be disappointed in the system.”

The White House did not respond to a request for a comment.


Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.