“I Structured My Entire Life Around Serving My Country”

A transgender man explains why he’s suing President Donald Trump to join the Air Force.

Teddy D’Atri
Teddy D’Atri. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Teddy D’Atri.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On March 23, President Donald Trump released his plan to ban open transgender service in the armed forces, following through on his tweeted promise to exclude gender minorities from the military. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union added six new plaintiffs who wish to enlist but would be prohibited from doing so under Trump’s ban. The judge overseeing the case has already blocked the anti-trans policy, ruling that it “shocks the conscience” and violates the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. These new plaintiffs don’t alter the ACLU’s arguments, but they give the court a broader picture of the harms that the ban inflicts on transgender Americans.

One of those plaintiffs is Teddy D’Atri, a Rhode Island resident who was just beginning the recruitment process when Trump tweeted his policy in July. On Monday, I spoke to D’Atri about his efforts to enlist, his reasons for serving, and his decision to become a plaintiff in a major civil rights suit against the U.S. president. Our interview has been edited for clarity.

Mark Joseph Stern: Why did you decide to join the armed forces?

Teddy D’Atri: It’s a generational thing. My father and my grandfather were both in the Army; my father served for 12 years, and continuing that family legacy was something that I’ve always wanted to do. Also, I love this country; I’m lucky to live here, and the U.S. military is the best military in the world. Becoming a part of that, something bigger than myself, defending this country that I love so much—it’d be an honor.

Were you concerned that your gender identity would impede your ability to enlist?

Honestly, no. I did not feel that at all. I work with a few people who are veterans or serve in the armed forces reserves. The general consensus is that no one really cares what you do in life once you’re in the armed forces; they care if you can do your job. I know I’m mentally and physically capable of handling military life. I’m looking to go into the Air Force—to work in the Security Forces or as an aerial gunner. I don’t think my gender identity will get in the way of doing that job.

When did you first attempt to enlist?

I went to my initial recruiter in July of last year. He talked to me about what it’d be like to enlist, and at that moment I felt like, This is what I’m supposed to do. I felt happy, like I was making the right decision by being there and starting that process. My gender identity wasn’t really an issue.

That was a week before Trump tweeted about the ban.

How did you first hear about the tweets?

I encountered them the moment they came out. My friend texted me. I was sitting there thinking, How can a five-time draft dodger tell me that I can’t enlist? There was a lot of anger and confusion—I thought, What drove him to do this? I contacted my recruiter, but he said he hadn’t heard anything from a superior and no one had talked about it. He said there wasn’t really any basis for it and questioned its entire purpose. No one knew what to do. It just seemed completely unnecessary.

The federal courts have agreed, blocking the ban in its entirety. What was your reaction to the October decision holding that the ban likely violated the Constitution?

I was really happy. Probably the happiest I’ve been in a while. I structured my entire life around serving my country. This judge finally saw that the ban was really stupid. That gave me hope. It made me think, Maybe I’ll actually do this.

The Trump administration is still trying to implement the ban, and it looks like the issue may reach the Supreme Court. What would you do if the justices upheld it?

Honestly, I’d probably be completely crushed. This is what I want to do. I never knew that trying to enlist in the military would be so difficult.

How did you first connect with your lawyers?

I follow the ACLU Twitter account—that’s how I keep up to date with things going on with the trans ban and LGBTQ issues across the country. I saw Chase [Strangio, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project] tweet that if you are directly affected, please contact me. Within minutes, I reached out to him. I said, “Hi, I’m trying to get into the Air Force and this is going to ruin my entire life.” By that afternoon we had talked on the phone. I felt like not all hope was gone.

Still, it can’t be an easy decision to become a plaintiff in a major civil rights suit against the president of the United States.

I remember the moment that I told my parents I had joined the suit. They looked at me like—you’re serious about this? Do you understand you’re helping to change history? Your name is forever going to be cemented as “versus Donald Trump.” My entire body slumped down in my chair. You don’t realize the magnitude of what you’re doing until you talk about it with someone else.

But part of the reason I want to join the military is to help out people like me. I knew we were going to be allowed to enlist and openly serve for the first time. Us new people could go into boot camp and prove ourselves. I wanted to help show people that we’re normal; we just take a couple hormones. I can still do the job that you can do, and maybe I’ll even be able to do it better. I want to make it easier for people who try to do this in the future so they don’t have to face anything like I did.