When President Trump tweeted his decision to ban transgender individuals from the military in July 2017, there was a swift backlash from many corners, including from the thousands of trans service people currently devoting their lives to protecting America. But in a year that's seen the commander in chief express a number of views both Democrats and Republicans have labeled fundamentally un-American, it's easy to get caught up in the Trump Circus and forget that his decisions have the power to ruin real people's lives – in this case, the lives of U.S. soldiers.
So when Trump followed up on his Twitter threat with an official memo directing the Pentagon to renew its ban on transgender people in late August, sure, he may have made this decision simply to ignite the flames of a culture war that distracts from his crumbling agenda and chaotic administration. But that decision will impact the lives of Americans who simply want to serve their country without lying about who they are.
To open up a dialogue on trans individuals in the U.S. military, Billboard linked up Alabama-born, Chicago-based rapper KC Ortiz, a former Air Force personnel who was discharged after coming out as a trans woman, and Gavin Rayna Russom, an electronic artist who has worked with LCD Soundsystem since 2010 and came out as a trans woman in 2017.
The conversation touches on everything from the military's place as a haven for people who come from poverty and have nothing to fall back on, to what it was like for Ortiz hiding her identity while serving, to how coming out publicly has allowed both of them to regain self-confidence in life and art.
Read excerpts of the conversation below.
Billboard: When Trump first tweeted about the trans military ban, I think many weren't sure if it would come to pass. Now that he's following through on it, what are your thoughts?
KC Ortiz: For me, it was kind of heartbreaking because when I went into the military, I didn't want to go in the first place because I wanted to transition, but my mom thought it would help me become straight so she forced me to go. One of the last things she said to me was “You’re not my child.” When I was in the Air Force, all I was thinking was “I have nothing to go back to” and the first thing I thought of was how many people are in the military right now in the same situation where they have nothing to go back to.
Gavin Rayna Russom: When I found out about it, it was also heartbreaking. Also it felt very complex to me. It has always been a part of this American repression machine to create hostilities between people so they spend time fighting each other rather than fighting the system. But this situation was taken to a next level and it felt definitely like another one of those moves of isolating a group of people, which is timely because trans people are now gaining visibility after being invisible for a long time, and to single us out in a particular military context. I didn’t know that statistic about 15,000 trans people in the military and that’s a big group of people. I was getting on the plane to my job, being a touring musician, and I thought, "well, what if the order was that there can’t be trans people in the music business?" Then I’d be like, "Oh my whole life has been turned upside down." I read your interview, KC, in Out Magazine, and I think that there’s probably a lot more trans people in the military who don’t want to be there and who aren’t out and aren’t able to be out. It’s terrorism, like most of the things this administration does.
Billboard: Like you said, it’s heartbreaking and it’s also just kind of confounding. From your perspectives, why do you think Trump is so focused on this?
Russom: I think that this administration has created a lot of chaos to hide what it’s really doing in terms of stripping away environmental protections and legal restrictions. It’s an administration that has really taken it to the next level of creating a lot of chaos and pinning people against each other in very violent ways. I think this is an extension of that. There are other specific reasons why trans people are targeted across the board, but I also think that the purpose of the American state is to keep a few people in control of the bulk of the money and the power. That’s what the bulk of this is about and I think it gets very complex to me because the military is a very complex thing. I think it’s just a way to create more and more and more chaos so that a few people can just continue to do whatever they want unchecked.
Ortiz: I agree totally. I feel like a lot of this stuff is smokescreens. I also feel like people fear what they don’t understand. I personally didn’t want to go into the military but I feel like if someone wants to be there, they should be allowed to because that’s not a thing many people want to do. To take a job like that and to be told that you can’t because of who you are on the inside, who you are as a person, is blatant discrimination no matter how you dress it.
Billboard: It is, and yet sadly here we are. KC, can you talk about what it was like being a trans woman in the military?
Ortiz: Well, I always wanted to be a rapper. When I was 17 or 18, I wanted to be the next Lil' Kim. That was my dream, and to go in, to have all my hair cut off, have to pretend to be straight and everybody’s like “why don’t you have a girlfriend?” or “ why do your jeans have a heart on them?” It was always a lot of questions and it’s not fair for anyone to have to live a lie. I had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t and that was very, very hard for me because I’m a very honest person. To then have to wake up and live a lie. I wouldn't put anyone in that predicament because you don’t want to pretend to be something you’re not. Even though I wasn’t in there that long [two years], those are the years of my life that I’ll never get back. I was doing something because I had to, basically. It was in the back of my head that I didn’t want to go back to living in public housing and being in the ghetto. All that was always in the back of my head, like if they find out, I’m doomed. Like I said earlier, I had nothing to go back to. I don’t have a strong family support system. I’ve pretty much been on my own since I was 18. It was hard because it was always in the back of my mind that if they find out who I am, I’m going to go back to nothing.
Billboard: You're very brave.
Ortiz: Thank you.
Russom: KC, what you’re saying is, I think, true for a lot of people, that the military is almost a refuge for them, especially people who come from economic backgrounds where college is out of reach. I think it’s interesting to me because I grew up being very anti-war but as I began to understand what the military is for a lot of people, it's an odd contradiction because I support people in the military, because I know that for so many people it is a refuge, it’s a place to have basic needs taken care of. And also the government uses people, tons and tons of profit is made off of military and defense spending. I guess that's what I mean when I say it's a complex issue. And there's that thing for some trans people, it's what they want to do. They want to serve their country, they have a calling, or they want to acquire certain skills, there's a lot of skills that can be acquired.
Billboard: KC, do you keep in touch with anyone from your military days? Are they accepting of your transition?
Ortiz: Most of my close friends in the military were girls. I had like one straight friend, and I never told, well, I couldn't. We were really close, but when I got out I told him I was gay, but… I found him recently. We were emailing back and forth but I never told him I transitioned. My close girlfriends, they're still in there, one of them sent me pictures of the email and said "oh my god can you believe this is happening?" She messaged me recently and said, "we went through all that for nothing, you know?" I feel like a lot of people in the military don't have a problem with it. They know about me, and it did terrify them when I came out, they would come into my room and cut themselves out of my pictures at all the drag shows because they were so terrified they would get kicked out as well. It's just sad people have to live with that fear, they weren't doing anything wrong other than being my friend. I feel like everyone is equal and we shouldn't be drawing lines in the sand and putting people with jars and labels on them, we should just let people be them.
Billboard: Do you see a near future where this is overturned, and it goes back to a more accepting military?
Ortiz: I think so. I feel once this whole era passes, everything will go back to normal, but now it’s just a bunch of ruffling of feathers going on.
Russom: Yeah I definitely feel that's one of the sadder things about this particular tactic the administration is using, it's about distracting people from what's really going on, but it affects real people's lives. How we had young black and brown people serving life sentences for marijuana possession in the '80s, and now we start legalizing marijuana in a bunch of states. I'm sure this will pass, but two generations of people's lives were ruined. I know there's actual pushback to take it to court, which I think is great, but also to understand that is most meaningful on the way to challenge the systematic conditions that create these things. It's symptomatic of a system that thrives on exploiting people and turning them against each other. It also presents opportunities to say, yes, this is an important specific issue, but there's also the larger issue that it's built into the way the system works. It requires wider systemic change to create a world where things like this aren't continually happening.
Ortiz: I agree.
Russom: KC, can I ask you a question? Did you feel like it was a possibility for you socially to transition in the military? Did that feel possible?
Ortiz: For me? At that age I think I would have been terrified. I think it would have been nice. I think the people who lived in my dorm had a clue, they saw me in regular clothes and how I dressed, and I've always been flamboyant, even when I try to tone it down, my friends will be like, "No you need to change, you can't go out in that." For the most part the people in the dorm knew what was going on but as far as the sergeants and the people in charge, I went to work in a uniform and I'm introverted and don't talk a lot, so they didn't see my personality. I think I could have done it, it just would have been really frightening.
Russom: I can't imagine. I can't imagine. It sounds very frightening.
Ortiz: I transitioned in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and that was just as frightening. At my job, I worked at a shopping mall, and people would legit come in there every day just to point at me and say "that's a man, that's really a guy," and parents would come in and say, "How dare you have a transvestite working in the store?" It was a small town and word got around fast, and no matter where I went I was harassed. Transitioning is a scary situation and I applaud anyone who does it.
Russom: To be honest it was terrifying for me and I live in New York. I got and still get harassed, but so many days I'd walk out and think, "Thank God for New York City and all the people who have done work here," so at least I know other people who have done this before. But I'm like the only person in my neighborhood who had publicly transitioned. But I'm sorry you went through that, that's awful.
Ortiz: My job the last five or six years has mostly been working with trans girls, and a lot of them are homeless, they're sleeping on the streets because their parents won't accept them and they can't afford a home, they can't afford laser hair removal so they're getting clocked everywhere. To me I feel like the military would be a good place for people who are transitioning to get their hormones paid for, get a roof over their heads, to use their money to fund their wardrobe and personal transition. That would have been so perfect for so many kids I know.
Russom: One of the claims of the military is that it helps your self-esteem. For me, as my self-esteem increased, it was more like, "Oh, I'm trans." For me it was more around addiction, but when I started to feel better about myself it was, "Oh, I'm trans, I need to transition." And I think it's totally true what you're saying. It presents an important opportunity for kids. Maybe they can't afford therapy or college, they don't have resources to get the support. It's what the military claims to do for people.
Ortiz: If I could have transitioned in the military, my life would have been so much easier. I grew up poor. And I mean poor-poor, no water, no utilities, no school clothes. When I went to the military I had a clean place to live, a place to sleep at night, I was able to get a car. Even though the military wasn't my goal, it helped me become stable and independent. And that could work for so many kids having to walk up and down the street right now having to hide who they are from their parents. It could be such a way out if it was used in a positive manner.
Russom: I think that's a really good point.
Billboard: I have a question for both of you. You mentioned self-esteem earlier: since transitioning, how have you felt? Has it been steady, or are there ups and downs?
Ortiz: I have things I linger. A few days ago with my music, I wondered, "If I hadn't transitioned, would my music be where I want it to be?" There aren't any trans hip-hop artists, and I know I've taken on a big giant even trying. I feel like with any big decisions there are always 'what ifs,' but as far as my self-esteem goes, it's way better. I'm finally who I felt I was my whole life. Even my friends say before my transition I was very low, and something didn't seem right. And when I transitioned they were like, "You came alive." It affects who you are. Even seeing young girls transition, you can see such a difference in their demeanor.
Russom: I totally relate. I have ups and downs and good days and bad days, but everything is so much better. For me, before I transitioned, it was like there was something screaming at me inside my head, and everything felt wrong all the time and I couldn't figure out what it was. I would leave jobs, because I was like, "Something's wrong, maybe it's this job." Or I would drop out of school, "something's wrong, I guess it's this school." Or I would move from one place to another. For me it manifested in a lot of addiction issues. The baseline, there are ups and downs and some things are challenges. There's a lot to deal with, both with myself and people out in the world. I travel a lot, the whole airport security thing is very gendered and not built for trans people, it's very challenging. Certain individuals are really great about it, but as a system it's complex. But the baseline of how I feel today is night and day. I feel like a normal human being. Suddenly, I'm just okay, I'm just me. I could never figure out why other people in the world walking around seemed so comfortable and happy with themselves and could pursue goals and get from one point to another, while I was going around in circles, and now it feels like, "Oh, because the real me was buried inside me, and now I can be part of the world. I'm the person I really am."
Ortiz: I agree. One thing I tell people who are new to transitioning is that I am obsessed with the X-Men. I feel like so many people give X-Men and mutants and those movies shit.
Russom: I’m obsessed with X-Men too.
Ortiz: That's what I relate my transition to, because they get bullied so much, they get weird looks, but all those people staring wish they could do what they could do.
Russom: It feels like I did get super powers in a way when I started to transition. It felt like, the person inside me had to work so hard to get through a single day. I learned to deal with some shit. So once I transitioned, the big thing changed, now I can do all that and relax. It's an important thing. Anyone should be able to do it easily. When people ask me what's the hardest thing, dealing with other people's shit wasn't as hard as what was going on inside me. That stuff, it's unbelievable, it's in your bones, that it's wrong, that something terrible is going to happen, and then the truth is it’s the rightest thing that's happened in my life.
Ortiz: I feel the same. I tried my whole life to fight it. I remember being a high schooler praying in the bathroom, "God, just kill me now, because everyone says I'm going to hell and my mom is giving me shit about it and my grandma is giving me a hard time, I have to pretend to be someone else, all the boys are beating me up," it's intense. But I feel like all of our struggles and tribulations are basic training. They have to break you down and build you up to make you stronger. That's how I look at it. My grandma always tells me, "You're trying to be a superstar, so all this stuff you're going through is just preparing you for where you're going to go."
Russom: For me, if I can deal with all of that shit I went through, I can deal with anything.