Landon Wilson seemed destined to join the military from an early age, having been born in Warner Robins, Georgia where everyday life centered on its namesake Air Force Base, but there were battles to overcome and struggles to endure before he could do so.
See, Landon realized at a very young age that he felt different; his body felt different; his thoughts, too. He remembers one day, at age four, shouting to his mother, “Hey, I’m a boy.” But the reaction he got from her, and other people nearby, made him believe that he needed to tamp down the feeling that he was the wrong gender; he was born female, and even though he felt it was wrong, he thought he should live life as a female.
But then, as a teenager, a young girl in the eyes of everyone who knew him only from the outside, Landon took to wearing men’s clothes and cutting his hair very short. And growing up near that air base he saw the military as a way to fit in once he learned that, according to research, the percentage of transgender people in the military is twice as high as it is in the civilian population.
So Landon Wilson enlisted and in 2012, stationed in Hawaii, he began reading up on transitioning; he began connecting with other transgender men and women in the military online and learned that men who struggle with a desire to transition to women see the military as a barrier to keep them from taking that step. Landon saw it differently; as a biological girl who wished to finally be male, it was an easy environment in which he might fit, and he decided it was time to act.
He obtained a formal diagnosis of gender identity disorder from a counselor — a step transgender people sometimes take before undergoing hormone therapy — and after coming out to his mother, he began the process of taking hormones once a week.
“I knew everything that was on the table, but at the same time it was completely worth it. It was like taking my first breath.”
And the changes came about almost instantly; the hormone injections deepened his voice and changed both his face and body; his muscles and strength grew, along with light facial hair, and, because the hormones trigger a reaction similar to puberty, he also developed acne. But Landon Wilson finally felt at home in his skin; his skin. It’s a feeling not many of us can even fathom because we’ve known that feeling our whole lives, but for Landon Wilson he was finally himself. It seemed like his life had started, though soon it would seem to end.
After volunteering for a year-long deployment in Afghanistan, he arrived at the Navy processing center in Virginia, where he was assigned to male barracks and given male uniforms. But that same day medical personnel noticed paperwork which indicated Wilson was female and they inexplicably ordered a pregnancy test, while allowing him to still be housed with the men and clothed as a man.
And then, when he was sent to South Carolina for combat training, he again was assigned to male barracks and all of his paperwork was changed to reflect the gender that everyone assumed he was, at least outwardly. And because his former name — which he has since changed to Landon — was somewhat androgynous, no one asked questions; even the men who shared his living quarters assumed he was a man.
Last fall his assignment came up, and he was sent to Afghanistan, where he went to work on the night shift, intercepting communications by militants and then guiding Special Operations troops in carrying out missions. Feeling indispensable in his new position, Landon stopped worrying about being discovered.
“At that point, I had no concerns about it. I felt confident about my ability to do my job and I was hopeful that would be enough if everything did come out. That that would be enough to stay.”
But his secret came out when one of his commanders spoke to his superiors in Hawaii to make arrangements for a promotion; the officials in Hawaii used female pronouns to refer to Wilson, while those in Afghanistan referred to him as male, and then, one night while on duty, a superior asked him to step outside.
“This Navy record says female, but this paper says male,” the sergeant major said, comparing two sets of personnel records. “So, what are you?”
Landon, who had joined the navy as a female — a woman whom most colleagues assumed was a lesbian because of the short hair and masculine attitudes — but since he’d begun the transition process, gave the only answer that fit.
“I am a male.”
His commanders in Afghanistan decided to send him home and within hours he was on a plane.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I have no idea what they told people.”
And strangely enough, when he arrived back on base in Hawaii, a few days later, his commanders promoted him; he even received a commendation letter from Vice Admiral Jan Tighe, who oversaw his unit. His superiors in Hawaii were respectful and at times almost sorry, with one telling Landon, “You know, we are overreacting because we have no idea what to do with you.”
However, that feeling of belonging, of being acknowledged for being a model soldier, was short-lived; after weeks of deliberations, Landon was given a choice:
“You can transition, or you can serve.”
Landon Wilson, who wanted both, signed his honorable discharge papers and left Hawaii and even though most officials in the Navy won’t comment on record, one did say, simply, “Petty Officer Wilson served honorably.”
Now Landon is sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Manhattan. E still has his security clearance and could easily find work as a civilian for an intelligence agency or even the Pentagon, he wants to return to the military.
“The military gave me the backbone to transition, to be who I am, because they look so fondly on honor and courage and all those things you have to have to be fully authentic. I don’t think I would have gotten to where I am today without that.”
Even with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell [DADT], the law that banned gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military, transgender service members can still be dismissed from the force without question and that subtle difference left Landon feeling resentful.
“I knew that the lesbian and gay community were getting all these freedoms and all their privileges. There was still that silent T that was completely ignored.”
And all of this is because of a decades-old policy that dates back to when gender nonconformity was widely seen as a mental illness. Although the American Psychiatric Association revised its manual last year to indicate that gender nonconformity is “not in itself a mental disorder,” the Defense Department still relies on the outdated guidelines that call transgender individuals “sexual deviants” and so there are thousands of transgender military personnel serving today that stay closeted.
The good news is that now the policy is coming under scrutiny with more and more service men and women like Landon Wilson stepping forward and becoming more visible. And more of those transgender service members are beginning the process of transitioning, causing most medical experts top ask the Defense Department to rescind that discriminatory policy as some of America’s closest allies, including Canada, Britain and Australia, have done.
And hopefully, one day, sooner rather than later, Landon Wilson can return to the job for which he was trained; the job at which he excelled,; the job which brought him commendation after commendation for his excellent service.
His excellent service.