Temperatures are well below freezing as Eli Sellers braves tempest-like winds on his walk to class near his home in Chicago, Illinois. As a newly enlisted member of the United States Navy, he’s taking his first round military training classes at his assigned base, Naval Station Great Lakes.
Eli is a third generation military serviceman. His father and his grandfather both served in the U.S Army. His father is still actively serving in the Army. With a legacy such as this, you could safely assume that Eli is familiar with the ins and outs of life in the military: The constant relocation, the strain on family, all these are challenges he has had to navigate within his 20 years. Yet, the obstacles that Eli faces on his journey to becoming an officer of the Navy are unique; challenges that neither his father, nor his grandfather can help him navigate. They are both cisgender, straight men. Eli, however, was born a woman.
Eli is the first openly transgender male to reside on his base. At 20 years old, he is an unwitting, yet passionate pioneer. Since U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the removal of the ban on transgender servicemen and women in July, Eli has been more open about his identity as a trans male in the service but, he treads this new territory with caution. Unsure of how to navigate the changing landscape, he attends classes where, he answer to male pronouns, but is required to return to female decks when dismissed.
“Most people didn’t know I was trans.” Eli admits. “At school, nobody knows that I’m trans. When I go to school, they don’t have our actual genders. They asked for our preferred genders but, I don’t know if that’s because I started school after October, after the policy had been implemented. Most people that I know didn’t get asked that question. I’ve been on hormones, so everyone just assumes that I am who I say I am, which, I am. I’m not necessarily hiding it, it’s just nice sometimes to not have to answer questions. Most of these people have never met someone who is transgender before, so it’s an issue of ignorance.”
A study released by the RAND Institute earlier this year, commissioned by the Department of Defense, estimates that there are approximately 2,450 active duty members of the United States military that identify as transgender. The study also reveals the depths of how detrimental the treatment of this small population was, before the ban.
Previous to 2015, transgender servicemen and women were not permitted to serve openly in the U.S. Military. The medical term for being transgender is Gender Dysphoria, a condition which was was labeled sexual deviancy within the military based on the outdated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Orders Vers 5 or DSM-5. Consequently, active duty members of the U.S. Military who identified as transgender or, received official diagnosis of this condition, would be automatically considered ineligible for service. As the definition, and consideration, of what exactly it meant to be a transgender individual became more progressive in the changing landscape of America (Thanks, Obama) the military has stayed stagnant in its interpretation of gender identity.
In 2011, our society was met with a collective, albeit mildly surprised, sense of relief, when the disastrous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy was repealed. For the first time in the history of the armed forces, the existence of servicemen and women who did not conform to heteronormative standards of sexuality, were being acknowledged. It was one small step for LGBT-kind, to so to speak. Such a simple yet, profound action: to acknowledge one’s existence. However, the battle was far from won. Most LGBTQ members of the military assumed that it would be years, maybe even decades, before policies recognizing the rights of transgender individuals could work their way into any official protocols.
Then, in 2015, Mr. Ashton Carter became an unexpected, essential ally in the fight for trans rights. Following the appointment of the first openly gay Army Secretary, Eric Fanning, Carter wasted no time in calling out military policies on trans servicemen, labeling the existing policies “outdated”. Next, he ordered officials across all branches of the military to revisit the policy and begin looking into what steps would need to be taken in order lift the ban.
The result of these combined studies were the RAND findings which definitively concluded that, not only were trans service men and women mentally fit to serve in the military but, it also reported that lifting the ban, and allowing them to serve openly, would incur minimal cost, and would have “no significant impact on unit readiness.”
When the ban was officially lifted this past June, Eli Sellers had been enlisted in the Navy for five months. Leading up to the new policy changes, his life had been in flux. He had been off of his hormones for quite some time, as his military protocols required that all initial enrollment paperwork be filed under his birth gender.
“When I shipped out to boot camp it was about a month before the ban was lifted so I wasn’t allowed to have any of that. I wasn’t supposed to be taking it after I got in,” he says. “After I got out of boot camp, I hadn’t been on hormones for a while. I was looking and sounding a little more feminine than I had before joining”
Eli has been going by male pronouns since he was 18 years old, but, it was a troubling turn of events, and a tumultuous life path, that led him to fully embrace his gender identity. Family strife (unrelated to Eli or his gender) left the teen traversing the southeastern United States at 16 years old with little more than his car, and cash from whatever odd job he could find at the time. In three years, he lived in four different homes, in just as many states. By the time he was 19, his on-again, off-again relationship with his girlfriend was temporarily off-again which left him homeless. Automatic payments from his new therapy left him unexpectedly penniless and stranded just outside of Orlando. With no place to go, and barely any money, Eli turned to the Zebra Coalition, a local LGBTQ advocacy group that offers essential services to youth in need of assistance, with a dedicated focus on LGBTQ youth. There, Eli found something that had been lacking in most of his teenage years: stability, and support.
“When I started, they provided the housing but, I have to add that I didn’t realize how much they did. Every morning I’d get here for Power Hour (Zebra Coalition’s Group Therapy Program) and there was this blank piece of computer paper where you’d write your name and what you need. If you need toilet paper, you need clothes … I think at some point someone needed shoes. Shampoo. Food. Something as simple as food. They gave me everyday services. They gave me a roof over my head. A roof with air conditioning, and a shower. You can’t get that everywhere you go.
“They were counseling me,” he says. “They had us make budgets every month. They provided a lot more education than I think most people think they do. Then, the sense of family that you get too. You come in here and, they all treat you like family. You click with them because they care that much, and that makes it so easy. I think at one point they provided almost my entire life aside from my car but that was all I had. They gave me the tools to take that and, move on, and do better things with my life even before the military.”
For nine months Eli received aid, counseling, and health care services, all provided by Zebra Coalition, that would not only help him mature as an adult but that would ultimately, help Eli determine his life path.
“I moved into housing April 24, 2015,” he says. “After that, Zebra really helped me make smarter decisions. I had a mental health counselor and a case manager who I really liked. Everybody said, ‘The case manager is too hard on people.’ but I liked it. I need that. I’m the kind of person where, if you make me do it, I’ll do it perfectly. That’s why the military’s good for me. I really needed somebody to push me and she definitely did that.”
“At some point, they came to me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve been doing this counseling for three months now. What do you want to do about hormones?’ I wanted hormones, so we went from counseling that was putting me in the right mindset to, counseling that was helping me be more comfortable with me” he says. “After six weeks, I got an acceptance letter and within a week or two, I actually got to start hormones.”
Today he is living in Illinois while he completes his Naval training. When he came to visit Orlando in December, his confidence was practically radiant, as he stood in the lobby of the Coalition with his wife Taylor. He is happy. He concedes that the only thing that has affected his life, and given him as much promise, as much as the Zebra Coalition, is his passion for his military service.
Eli not only understands the gravity of his role, as a transgender man in the service, he wholeheartedly embraces it. The ban was lifted less than six months ago so, understandably, there are still some kinks in the policies that need to be ironed out. Eli hopes that he can utilize his position to help the Navy make the transition for future trans servicemen and women as smooth as possible.
“The best comparison I have is, when a new game system is released, there’s always problems with it, it’s always got bugs,” he says. “The same goes for any new policies that are released. There’s alway going to be something wrong with in the beginning and it will have to be reworked several times before it is perfected. My goal is to be the one to deal with that and to guide the military and the people over me in the right direction. I’m dealing with the brand new military and it’s just got to be reworked a couple times, some policies more than others. Eventually I want to get it to the point that once people start enlisting they don’t have such a difficult time and don’t encounter so many bugs.”
In his own experience, his commanding officers have been nothing but compassionate and understanding. In the armed forces, every action taken must be approved up or down a chain of command, from the clothes recruits wear to the medications and procedures that servicemen are offered. Since the new policies took effect in October, Eli has had positive feedback from his commanding officers who have taken the time to communicate any information available at the time. In November he was pulled into a private session with one of his training instructors to inform him that they had finally received military guidance on how to proceed with certain protocols, specifically uniforms. Eli had been assigned female formal attire up to that point.
Eli notes that what struck him about the meeting was the fact that he had never approached the instructor about guidance policies. The instructor put forth the effort to make sure that they both were fully aware of the situation as it progressed. It was an act of camaraderie, an unspoken olive branch letting Eli know, he had an ally on the inside.
As he heads back to base after the winter break, Eli shoulders the burden of progress. He knows the road to change is a long and arduous one, but he hopes that his story can inspire others like him to enlist, and serve openly, as their true selves. He had always dreamed of becoming an advocate, and his military service has unexpectedly opened that door for him to give back to the community that once offered him so much.
“Ever since I came out two-and-a-half years ago, it was always something I really wanted to do. I wanted to be a voice for the people. It’s a big dream. You have people like Logan and Laila Ireland who are so inspirational and who do so much good work. It just seems like such a far-fetched thing to speak for the community that’s had your back. I didn’t ever realize that I could do something like this but, the Zebra Coalition gave me that voice. Being a little bit older, having learned a lot more, I would like to be a voice for the community. Not only for myself but for people who need the inspiration, who didn’t get it as easy as I have. I think that would be something really cool to be able to stand with those other greats.”
The Zebra Coalition, which Eli still considers one of the places he calls home, is unwavering in their support of Eli, even from hundreds of miles away, as he pursues his dreams and his purpose. Director Heather Wilkie is proud of their former resident, and she invited him to speak to a new group of LGBTQ youth as they attended PowerHour, sitting in the same spot Eli did, years ago.
“I think that Eli has it in him. He’s going to be an advocate.” she says. “He’s already an advocate. When you have that spirit in you I think it just carries on. I don’t think it ever goes away.”