Documentary exposes lives of trans service members and their struggles to serve authentically; Ireland medically retired due to government military policies regarding trans service members
By: Chris Gilmore and Audrey Cole/TRT Reporters—
The multiple award-winning documentary TransMilitary, by filmmakers Gabriel Silverman, Fiona Dawson and Jamie Coughlin, chronicles the lives of four transgender service members, Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Corporal Laila Villanueva, Captain Jennifer Peace and First Lieutenant El Cook, who vehemently defend their country’s freedom while fighting for their own.
According to the New York Times, transgender people are twice as likely to serve as their fellow citizens. Some service members have to serve while concealing their gender identity because of military policies that ban their open service while fighting. Concerned about being discharged or prevented from voluntarily enlisting, they fight from the start for what should be their equal right to serve the United States of America.
Available to stream on a variety of platforms since January 2019, the film’s online launch took place days before the Supreme Court decided to uphold Pres. Trump’s ban on transgender military service members—the approximately15,500 transgender officers serving in the U.S. military (the largest transgender employer in the country). The trans men and women in TransMilitary courageously—and willingly—put themselves in the line of fire while serving, to help bring visibility and education, activism and equal rights, to a self-sacrificing cause they serve, live—and die—for.
One of them, Army Corporal Laila Villanueva, now medically retired after 12 years of service, sat with The Rainbow Times to discuss the film, the ARMY, the love for the military that she shares with her husband, Logan Ireland, and what has come out of the despair of being “forced” to leave behind a life of service that she never thought would end so quickly.
The Rainbow Times: In light of the Supreme Court of the United States decision to uphold President Trump’s ban on transgender service members, why is this documentary important to watch?
Laila Villanueva: The premiere of this film could not have come at a better time as Trump’s transgender military ban is facing legal battles. Representation of transgender individuals in the media today is extremely important. TransMilitary is an up-close and personal, colorful and insightful documentary that insists on the importance of films like this to assist in educating, introducing and making people aware of who transgender people are, specifically those who have volunteered to put their lives and livelihoods on the line in order to protect the people of this country and the country itself. Contrary to what some may think, the lives of transgender people are not an experiment at all, nor are their individual decisions to join the military. They just want to live their lives as anyone else does.
Q: Looking back (after news broke about the High Court decision), do you regret your participation in the documentary?
A: Participating in this documentary has changed my life in ways I never could have ever imagined. My part in this film is just a very small but extremely impactful part of this journey. I do not regret at all being a part of this film. Through this film, I have been afforded the opportunity to forge many great relationships, travel to many different amazing places, and hold many telling conversations surrounding transgender people in the military and society. Through this film, the team and our trans military [service] members have been really able to change hearts and minds across the world.
Q: According to the documentary, you left the ARMY with an honorable discharge because you wanted to keep your benefits. When exactly did you leave and under what conditions? Would you have continued serving, had you not been given the grief you were given (dress code, discrimination, etc.)?
A: If I were afforded the opportunity to continue to serve, I would definitely still be in the military today. I medically retired from the military in November 2015 under Honorable Conditions. I am very proud to say I am a veteran and have served in the greatest armed forces for the greatest nation in the world. But, obviously, life had very different plans for me.
Q: Is Logan still serving? If so, do you fear what this will do to his career and career plans to advance within his branch? Is he an Airman now?
A: Logan is still currently serving in the Air Force. While I am not fearful of what this proposed policy will do to his career, it is extremely disappointing. The proposed policy allows him to be grandfathered in and stay in the military, but prevents him from taking the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test, a test that would help him advance his career as an officer in the Air Force. The court’s ruling is irrational, it is biased, and it is hurtful to a lot of troops that are currently serving both here at home and overseas, and even to the ones that have served.
Q: If you were face-to-face with Pres. Donald Trump, what would you tell him about this ban? About transgender service members?
A: I truly believe that it takes extreme courage to enlist in today’s military knowing the state of affairs overseas and here in the United States. I also believe that transgender people tap into absolute vulnerability to be emotionally engaging and open about themselves in order to be able to work with a team you basically live life with, about all your real life experiences. By excluding transgender people from being in the armed services, it validates the idea that transgender people are worth less than their comrades. You give up a sense of self when you enlist into the military. It is a selfless act when you become a service member. That is an experience that only the brave 1% of Americans are willing enough to embrace.
Q: For those of us, who’ve never been in the military, please help us understand why when your employer discriminates against you and threatens to fire you or requires you to live unauthentically, why would you still want to serve under those conditions?
A: Many see joining the military as a calling. The need and desire to be a part of something bigger than just themselves. Though it isn’t an inherent right to serve in the military, it is an opportunity earned through capability and character. The fight for open transgender military service does not seek “a right to serve,” but to show, through both capability and character, that we have earned the opportunity to serve. Exclusion gives credence to the notion that we are somehow less than other service members. It flies in the face of the meritocracy that says the best and brightest succeed. When a person has a calling, they will fight to their last breath to remain and will do their very best to prove, even to the most ardent detractors, of their folly.
Q: Where do you think this is going? What hope do you give others trans people wanting to enlist or join the military after the Supreme Court decision?
A: It’s hard to assume where this movement will go, especially in a time when anything is possible. At this moment, it’s hard to say whether one should attempt to join the military or not. We have trans folks going into recruiters’ offices and putting in their enlistment packets but being told they have to enlist as their gender assigned to them at birth. It is quite unnerving to hear that. This ban goes against the very practice of measuring a person’s value in the military by what each individual person brings to the table and not by our gender identity. So, it is a gamble making the decision to enlist or not. We have to keep looking forward and have to continue to work even harder. We have to keep moving because our lives depend on it.
Q: Tell me, how did you meet Logan? The film talks about having children, how does yesterday’s news affect that too?
A: Logan and I met in 2012 from an online support group for TransMilitary members called OutServe-SLDN: Transgender Chapter. We then helped create and build another non-profit organization called SPART*A Trans in 2013-2014. Before we formally met at the annual SPART*A conference in 2014, our relationship was purely professional. But that soon turned into dating and quickly followed was a surprise proposal in Hawaii, orchestrated by Logan with the help of my closest family and friends. And, we married in May 2016. Our plans of having children have not been detoured by the recent news and we still plan on moving forward.
Q: What exactly are you doing now? Where do you go from here?
A: Currently, I work as a Healthcare Management and Administration Supervisor. The only way from here is up. We have to keep on fighting. We have to continue to believe that it will get better. While visibility does not equate to equality, ignorance does equal fear and fear and silence does equal death. We have to believe and be proactive if we want to change the negative narrative that continues to berate our communities.
Q: What were your parent’s reactions when they heard about yesterday’s news in terms of support for you?
A: We are very lucky and blessed to have very supportive parents, very supportive family and friends. Their reactions and sentiments echoed that of many other people hearing the news–they were enraged and disappointed. They also had many questions on what was going to happen next in our lives. But we continue to remain positive and humble and realistic about moving forward.
Q: How long did you serve and in what branch?
A: [I served from] 2003-2015, in the Army.
Q: Do you do other transgender-related work?
A: Aside from TransMilitary advocacy, I sit on a few boards that cater to the LGBTQ2 Community. I am a board member for Point of Pride … a non-profit organization, created by Aydian Dowling and Jeffrey Main that works to benefit trans people in need through gender-affirming support programs that empower them to live more authentically. … I sit on the Military Advisory Council Board of Outserve-SLDN, as a trans-military consultant providing data and insight on what the trans military community is going through or needs. Also, I often travel and hold open conversations in schools, installations and businesses across our nation advocating for LGBTQ2 youth and veterans.
Q: What does SPART*A do and how can others help fund it or how can they become involved?
A: SPART*A is a non-profit organization that was founded in late 2012 and stands for Service Members, partners and allies for the respect and tolerance of all. This organization exists solely online and consists of over 850 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen who are currently serving and identify as transgender. Its membership represents the entire transgender spectrum including non-binary and gender fluid folks, even though the military does not recognize NB and GQ people. Under the direction of LCDR Blake Dremann, our all-volunteer staff serves as a one-stop shop for guidance and support while transitioning in the military, or from military to civilian life. This includes how to conduct name changes to starting the transition process with their unit leadership and medical teams. We also offer a safe space for support for the families of our SPART*A members. If you’d like to get involved with SPART*A, you can find us on Facebook or you can visit our website at www.spartpride.org. If you’d like to donate to SPART*A, you can go to www.spartpride.org/donate. All profits go to our Jessie Shipps Emergency Relief Fund to assist those in our trans military community should they need it.
Q: When I watched the film, I felt anger for the way you were treated and sadness for your struggle and outcome. What do you say about those reactions?
A: I think the audience reactions gives credence to what myself and any normal person would see as disrespectful and mistreatment. People who have watched the film and meet me, often apologize for the way that I was treated. But, I think it is also important to highlight that there is a huge disparity in how trans women, let alone women, are treated in hyper-masculine environments because of toxic masculinity. I also live at several intersectionalities: being a woman, being transgender, being a woman of color, being Asian American and Pacific Islander, being Latinx, being raised Catholic, coming from a military family and background, being a spouse and being a veteran. There is a lot to unpack there, but these are the conversations that are important to have.
Q: Use three words to describe yourself.
A: Three words? Hmmm. If I had to choose I’d say: Determined. Outspoken. Unapologetic.
Q: Use three words to describe your love for Logan.
A: Three words to describe my love for Logan would be: Giddy. Random. Equal.
Q: What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?
A: I think the thing that most people would find surprising to learn about me is that while I love the glam dresses and makeup and hair do’s, if I could actually go to all my events in a sweater, sweatpants and my hair tied in a bun with a box of pizza, I totally would. But you know, I have to clean it up every once in a while.
Q: What message would you like to send to trans youth seeing the film and now hearing about this Trans Military ban?
A: I didn’t have a person or a mentor to hold my hand going through this journey. No one told me how hard it was going to be. But, I also grew up in a different time. Don’t let the crazy rhetoric of one person, even if they are the leader of the “free world,” detour you from being your authentic self and living your best life. Don’t allow people like them to steal your sunshine. Life is way too short to spend another day at war with yourself. When LGBTQ2 folks decide to be visible and present, and unapologetically authentic, that is the reality that we choose, not one that can be chosen for us. So, LIVE YOUR LIFE!!!
Q: Do you ever think visibility places you at risk in the outside world?
A: Visibility as a transgender person, let alone a woman, let alone a person of color is inherently placing myself at risk in today’s society. But it is a risk that I am absolutely willing to take if that means we get to actually start having the hard conversations surrounding those things.
Q: There are young people who look up to you via social media, what message do you tell them? Where can people find you in social media?
A: I receive tons of messages on a daily basis across all social media platforms. I always encourage my followers to be unapologetic about themselves, to harness that sunshine and share the love with those that need it so that they may be able to pass along those planted seeds. It’s tough out there in the world but our love, determination, and will to fight for humanity is what is going to keep moving us forward. You can find me on IG: @laila.ireland, on Twitter: @lailaireland, and on FB: @TheOfficialIrelands.