To ancient Greeks, Sparta was synonymous with military might.
To today’s transgender soldiers, SPART*A is a source of strength.
SPART*A, which stands for Service Members, Partners, Allies, for Respect and Tolerance For All, is an advocacy group founded in 2013 that supports transgender people in the military. A mere eight people sit on its board. The staffers, all volunteer, sometimes have to take personal leave time from their day jobs for meetings.
But as the implementation of the transgender troop ban approaches on April 12, SPART*A has proved itself to be as mighty as it is tiny.
It would not be an overstatement to say that it will probably save lives.
Once the Trump administration’s policy goes into effect next month, any transgender service member who has not yet come out and received a gender dysphoria diagnosis will have to hide or suppress their gender identity if they don’t want to risk discharge.
As mental health experts previously told The Daily Beast, transgender service members working under such conditions could suffer from increased depression and anxiety.
That’s precisely why they will need SPART*A’s confidential online discussion group.
“SPART*A will fill a small part of the void by providing affirming peer support to those transgender service members being denied the opportunity to receive medically necessary care,” Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann, an active-duty member of the Navy who serves as president of SPART*A, told The Daily Beast.
One of those service members is a closeted transgender woman—currently a lieutenant colonel pilot in the Air Force approaching retirement—who agreed to speak with The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity because she could risk discharge if named.
Before this Air Force pilot found the SPART*A discussion group earlier this year, she felt alone. She had come to the realization that she needed to transition years ago, after suppressing her gender identity while she and her wife raised their children together.
“Finally,” she told The Daily Beast, “I got to the point where I just decided there’s no use fighting it anymore.”
But when the Obama administration announced in 2016 that transgender military service would be permitted, she still wasn’t ready to transition because she worried that doing so would break up her family.
That fear was warranted. After telling her wife that she needed to transition, as the pilot told The Daily Beast, the couple “kind of got to a point where we were considering divorce and weren’t sure what we were going to do.”
Then came President Trump’s July 2017 Twitter thread announcing that he intended to put an end to transgender military service.
“The infamous tweet came out,” said the pilot, “and so at that point I was potentially glad I didn’t [come out earlier.]”
Marriage counseling has helped the pilot and her wife turn a corner over the last six months. But at the same time, of course, the Trump administration has been in court,fighting to implementthe transgender troop ban as quickly as possible. In January, the Supreme Court decided to allow the ban to go into effect.
The pilot has felt distraught and isolated.
“My wife knew [I was transgender], but there wasn’t really anyone I could talk to and I didn’t know any people who were trans,” she told The Daily Beast.
Then she happened upon SPART*A through a chance connection. Her electrologist—a hair removal specialist—connected her with a nearby transgender service member, who in turn introduced her to SPART*A’s closed online forum. What the pilot found there was “amazing,” she told The Daily Beast, and “opened up a whole world of resources.”
“All of a sudden, I went from not having anyone to talk to—and no one that I felt safe sharing things with—to having this resource of all these people,” she said.
SPART*A branched off from the LGBT military organization OutServe-SLDN in 2013, Dremann told The Daily Beast, and became more focused on transgender issues over the following two years, pushing for open service while supporting its handful of members.
The peer support function of SPART*A, said Dremann, “has been our main focus since the beginning, since even when we were officially under OutServe.”
The discussion group was created as a “place for people to be able to go whether there were others that were like them, no matter where in the world,” as Dremann noted. It functions in part as an educational forum where transgender service members can stay on top of policy changes. But it is also a social space, says Dremann, where transgender troops can “make friends”—where they can “socialize” and “vent their frustrations or celebrate their victories as they work through their transition.”
For the anonymous Air Force pilot, the group has provided both information and support.
Although several transgender service members are currently scramblingto get a gender dysphoria diagnosis before the April 12 deadlineso that they can be protected under the troop ban’s grandfather clause, the pilot doesn’t want to get a diagnosis, even though she needs one.
“I definitely think that had I wanted to or had I decided to, I could have,” she said.
But through the private SPART*A group she learned about a little-known Air Force regulation that would bar her from flying if she received a gender dysphoria diagnosis.
With retirement approaching, the pilot can’t afford to be grounded. Because she plans to pursue a career in commercial aviation after leaving the armed forces, she feels pressure to keep flying until the end to make her résumé more appealing to airliners.
“Continuing to fly until I retire will significantly increase the chance of getting hired,” she said. “That career field provides me the stability and the money I need to be able to take care of myself and transition—and to take care of my family, which is a high priority.”
The pilot had “absolutely no idea” that this regulation even existed until she connected with SPART*A—and asking Air Force medical staff about it would have been unwise.
“It’s not like I can just go to the [Air Force] flight surgeon and say, ‘Hey, by the way, if a friend of mine who’s a pilot had gender dysphoria would there be any issues with that?’” she explained, with a laugh. “You can’t really ask that question without outing yourself.”
Delaying transition to ensure that she can support her family won’t be easy for the pilot. She will have to deal with months of gender dysphoria, compounded by the distress of being unable to receive transition-related medical care. It’s only because retirement is so close that she can even consider putting off the process.
“Feeling the way I feel, there’s no way that I would go 20 years not being able to transition if I were to start over again today and was at the point I am,” she said.
The pilot is honest about the emotional toll that the policy takes.
“Do I like it? Absolutely not,” she said. “Does it impact my work? I would say yes.”
The pilot isn’t affected “to the point of being dangerous or anything like that,” she clarified, but she readily admits that she can’t exactly bring enthusiasm to certain aspects of her job while being denied medically-necessary health care.
“I’m maybe not quite as effective if I’m writing reports or doing some of the administrative stuff as quick as I could be,” she said. “I get a little bit distracted.”
The consequences of being unable to transition aren’t limited to her workplace, either.
“At home as well, it definitely takes a toll there, because when I’m focusing on transitioning and thinking about that, that’s time that’s taken away from being with my family,” she said. “So I definitely see that it’s affecting my quality of life.”
The support provided by the SPART*A group is no substitute for gender transition. Major medical associationsagree that hormone therapy and surgeries are often not optional for transgender people who suffer from gender dysphoria. But SPART*A can help blunt some of the pain while the pilot endures the needless waiting.
“For the long-term success of my transition and for the good of our family, this is kind of what we’ve been relegated to go through,” she said. “Even though there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t be able to start on hormones right now and make that transition.”
Recently, the pilot was able to spend an entire weekend away from work presenting female—and she posted about it on SPART*A to cheers from her peers.
“Everyone is just super supportive of each other and encouraging along the way,” she said. “It’s a safe space where you can be happy about the little victories.”
Maintaining the safety of the SPART*A group is a tough assignment.
The first rule of the SPART*A group is that no one discusses details outside the group.
“We have very strict code of conduct rules that we follow to make sure that interactions and conversations with people in the group remain there,” said Dremann.
With the threat of the transgender troop ban looming large, it’s also important to ensure that no bad actors infiltrate the private group, which is why SPART*A has instituted a strict vetting process in which individual chapter leaders must vouch for applicants.
As the April 12 deadline approaches, Dremann reports, the group has seen “an uptick in numbers”—especially after Dremann and four other transgender service members testified before Congress in February. He estimates that over 100 members have joined in the last year, with about 40 of those members joining “in the last couple weeks.” Before that, the group primarily accrued new members through word of mouth.
“So our vetting process has had to be a little bit more robust just because we don’t have anybody who knows some of the folks who were referred to us,” he told The Daily Beast.
For many transgender service members, SPART*A’s discussion group is the only place where they can comfortably seek peer support. Even though there are many transgender support websites and online discussion groups, “a lot of them are also public,” as the pilot explained, “so for a lot of us in the military that doesn’t really work.”
Before her electrologist happened to introduce her to another transgender service member, for example, the pilot had no idea how to meet others in her community without jeopardizing her career.
“I didn’t know anyone who was transgender and I didn’t know how to track people down because by going out on social media and saying, ‘Hey, are there any other transgender people around? Do you want to hang out?’—then you’re outing yourself,” she said.
Although SPART*A’s peer support group resembles other transgender discussion forums in some key ways, says Dremann, its specific focus makes it irreplaceable.
“The military is a different beast with different struggles and different ways of working through transition,” he said. “Our transition process within the military is very linear and very strict.”
With rules and regulations come confusion—and panicked queries from new members.
“On SPART*A, as the new people come on and they’re asking questions, it’s fantastic how people are always willing to jump in and share their experiences,” the pilot said.
For the Air Force pilot, who by now is a seasoned veteran of the group, SPART*A will continue to function as a “support lifeline,” as she told The Daily Beast.
“I regret that it took me until this long in my life, at the very end [of my career], to be able to find it, But I definitely consider it a blessing that just through happenstance and chance I was able to find my way into it.”
Through the group, she has already connected with transgender flight attendants and pilots in the civilian aerospace industry who will become her new support network when she retires. As a commercial airline pilot, she will be allowed to get a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and transition without losing her job.
Although her own happy future is drawing closer, the pilot sympathizes with those younger transgender service members who will have to serve under the ban until it is rescinded, which she believes will happen as soon as the Trump administration ends.
“It’s just a shame that a policy is going to come in for a short time that can totally wreck people’s lives that we pretty much all know is going to be reversed hopefully not too far down the road,” she said.
Dremann, too, is confident the ban will be short-lived: “Oh, we’ll get it changed back.”
In the meantime, SPART*A will be there, providing a lot of support with limited resources.
“We are definitely punching above our weight,” said Dremann. “We’ve got a bunch of active-duty service members trying to move big rocks. But that’s what makes us resilient.”