Award-Winning Documentary TransMilitary Shines a Spotlight on Trans Soldiers

FILM REVIEW

written by Waylon Jordan

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An estimated 15,000 trans men and women were serving in the military when the current administration’s ban went into effect recently. They had fought to protect their country’s freedoms, only to find their own freedom to serve taken from them. Many in the United States did not realize that when the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was removed from the military, it did not cover trans men and women who were serving. These soldiers were given very little choice in remaining closeted.

In Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson’s award-winning documentary, TransMilitary, a brilliant spotlight shines on a handful of these men and women who put their own careers at risk in coming out as trans, not only to their regional leadership but also to top officials in the Pentagon, in order to preserve their rights to continue to serve and to do so openly as the gender with which they identify.

Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Corporal Laila Villanueva, Captain Jennifer Peace, and First Lieutenant El Cook share their stories with Silverman and Dawson in emotionally raw interviews that cut to the heart of the matter.

In doing so, the documentary not only addresses the issues, but gives those issues faces, names, and history that cannot be denied. These are proud men and women who serve, not because it is required, but because they feel that call to service deep in their bones.

Ireland, for example, on the surface would appear to be everything that we think of as the stereotypical, masculine American male soldier. Serving in Afghanistan, he happened upon leadership that would allow him to serve openly as male, to stay in the male barracks, and to use male services.

He calls Afghanistan a paradise in that he has been given this ability to serve in this way, and laments the fact that were he to transfer back home, he would be required to wear women’s uniforms, stay in women’s quarters, etc. because of the “F” mark on the gender question on all of his military paperwork.

We watch as he struggles with this and celebrate with him as he earns the rare special dispensation, upon returning home, that will allow him to continue to serve as the man he was born to be.

It’s a bittersweet moment, however, as he sets out to buy men’s dress blues. His wife, Corporal Laila Villanueva, has not been so lucky. She is still forced to wear the men’s uniforms and stay in men’s barracks. She has also just found out that a case is being built against her to force her out of service.

Meanwhile, Captain Jennifer Peace lays out sexual assault statistics in the military commenting on the fear that trans women, in particular, feel when they are forced to stay in men’s barracks.

Through all of this, Silverman and Dawson beautifully weave together these stories, giving us glimpses of the soldiers in the field but also of their families which are in various stages of acceptance of the gender identities of their children and siblings.

It’s not only effective storytelling, but it reaffirms the realism of the men and women involved in the documentary.

In one particularly moving moment, First Lieutenant El Cook, an African American trans man, visits his mother, a reverend, before he will have to ship out for yet another tour in Afghanistan. His mother talks of her own path to acceptance, and as Cook prepares to leave their home to deploy, the reverend, her husband, and her trans son of whom she is so proud pray together for his protection and safe return home.

Yet perhaps what is most heartbreaking of all, is the knowledge that even after the documentary and the hard work that these brave men and women put forth, their cries still fell on deaf ears in the office of the President and his advisers.

On April 12, 2019, the ban of trans men and women serving in the military officially went into effect, and if it is followed to the letter, all of the men and women featured in this documentary will be unceremoniously discharged from service.

If nothing else, TransMilitary will show you exactly why that decision should bother you.


TransMilitary is now available on a variety of streaming services, including Vimeo and iTunes. The film’s official website also contains details on how to schedule screenings of the film. For more information on the filmmakers, the documentary, and the men and women involved, visit www.transmilitary.org.

Samantha Kolesnik