When Navy SEAL Ashley Nefzger heard rumblings that President Joe Biden could sign an executive order to repeal a Trump-era ban on most transgender Americans joining the military, she was cautiously hopeful.
“I didn’t necessarily want to get my hopes up,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on “Full Circle” Friday. “I was hopeful for it, but I also wanted to keep my expectations at bay on what exactly it was going to mean.”
Nefzger has both lived through and written transgender military history since the Supreme Court allowed Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military to go into effect in January 2019. The year the ban took effect, Nefzger – who had already been serving in the military since 2002 – officially transitioned and became the first active-duty Navy SEAL in history to identify as transgender. Last week, Biden signed an executive order to repeal the ban.
“That’s a weight lifted not only off of my shoulders, but off of so many transgender individuals that are serving right now, but also all of those who are not open and who are still unsure if they want to come out or unsure of themselves,” she said. “That’s allowing everybody to continue to be themselves without having to worry of any adverse effects from their command or being pushed out. And it allows them to serve with freedom in order to do their job.”
Nefzger continued, “So I think it’s amazing and I’m happy that it happened, so I think it’s going to give a lot of other individuals that chance to finally be themselves while not having to worry about anything else, and hiding.”
SPART*A, the Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All, estimates there are 15,000 transgender service members, and the organization is in contact with more than 300 other transgender individuals who are ready to enlist.
Speaking from the Oval Office just before signing the executive order last week, Biden said the order “is reinstating a position that the previous commanders and, as well as the secretaries, have supported. And what I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a White House briefing that “no one will be separated or discharged from the military or denied reenlistment on the basis of gender identity, and for those transgender service members who were discharged or separated because of gender identity, their cases will be reexamined.”
Then-President Donald Trump first announced the ban on Twitter in July 2017, which was rebuked by the Democratic-led House of Representatives and condemned by LGBTQ activists as discriminatory. Trump argued that transgender people in the military would lead to “tremendous medical costs and disruption.”
The policy, later officially released by then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2018, blocked individuals who have been diagnosed with a condition known as gender dysphoria from serving, with limited exceptions. The policy specified that individuals without the condition can serve, but only if they do so according to the sex they were assigned at birth.
Trump’s ban reversed a policy initially approved by the Defense Department under then-President Barack Obama that was still under final review and that would have allowed transgender individuals to serve in the military.
CNN’s Kate Sullivan, Oren Liebermann, Ellie Kaufman and Anne Clifford contributed to this report.