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Grand Forks' LGBT leaders cheer change to military's transgender ban

Grand Forks resident and transgender activist Theresa Marshall says the 1980s were a different time in the U.S. military. Before the repeal of policies that banned open service by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, life in the milita...

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Theresa Marshall talks about her childhood, the struggles throughout her life. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Grand Forks resident and transgender activist Theresa Marshall says the 1980s were a different time in the U.S. military. Before the repeal of policies that banned open service by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, life in the military was harder.

Marshall speaks from experience.

Now living as a transgender woman, she was in the midst of questioning her identity-wondering often if she was gay-during the roughly two years she served in the U.S. Army as a man during the mid-1980s.

"I knew other men and women in the service who were either gay or lesbian," said Marshall, who recently founded Gender Friendly Grand Forks, a local transgender group. "I knew several people who got kicked out for it. I always felt like you were on guard. You really had to be careful about your life. You had to be very careful who you trusted."

That's why Marshall readily cheered the Thursday news that the Pentagon announced an end to the ban on open transgender service . The news comes in the wake of the 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a similar ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual service.

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"Americans who want to serve and can meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete to do so. After all, our all-volunteer force is built upon having the most qualified Americans," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in announcing the change. "And the profession of arms is based on honor and trust."

Carter said the change affects at least 2,500 active service members out of about 1.3 million, and at least 1,500 reserve service members out of about 825,000. The study Carter cited, according to Reuters, estimated those numbers could be as high as 7,000 and 4,000, respectively.

"Although relatively few in number, we're talking about talented and trained Americans who are serving their country with honor and distinction," he said, noting this issue was one that allows the military to draw on the widest pool of qualified citizens. Countries like the United Kingdom, Israel and Australia already allow open transgender service. The immediate effect of the change is to shield current transgender service members from facing discrimination for serving openly. The changes culminate in openly transgender civilians joining the U.S. military by this time next year.

Shaun Shenk, public affairs chief for Grand Forks Air Force Base, referred inquiries on the local effects of the change to the Department of Defense. Eric Pahon, a spokesman with the department, explained the Air Force, like other branches of the armed forces, will be able to develop its own plan for implementing transgender-inclusive changes into its operations, though he pointed out a memo setting a Department of Defense timeline for achieving items like name change processes and transgender-specific medical treatment. The way adjustments are implemented, Pahon said, could differ slightly from branch to branch within the armed forces and slightly from base to base within each branch.

Kyle Thorson, an organizer with Grand Forks Pride, a festival that celebrates the LGBT community, said the changes are a meaningful step forward.

"I think this marks a huge win in moving toward a world where our transgender friends are considered equal," Thorson said. "Certainly there will be some friction as there is with any change, but in the end, our military and our country will be stronger and more united than ever before."

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