Naval Academy grad's career stalled by DOD transgender policy
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published: June 28, 2016
Alexandra Marberry should have gone to flight school in October, but the 2015 Naval Academy graduate never made it to Pensacola, Florida.
Instead, the 23-year-old aspiring aviator works as an administrative assistant in a windlowless office at the academy — in a male uniform.
Marberry is transgender. Her gender identity is different from the male body she was born into.
The Department of the Defense announced last year that it intends to allow transgender people to serve openly, and the Pentagon now plans to announce the repeal of its ban Friday.
Because Marberry revealed her gender identity, her career has been on hold, and her gender transition is at an impasse. She is required to keep her hair short, use male bathrooms and meet male physical requirements, despite being on female hormones. Her trimmed eyebrows, smooth jawline and feminine silhouette don't match the required male uniform — garnering a mix of sir's and ma'am's from passers-by.
Instead of piloting airplanes, she files paperwork and helps plan academy events.
"This is my dream career," she said. "And I'm sitting here atrophying."
Marberry is one of an estimated 15,500 soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors waiting to find out if they'll be permitted to serve their country as the gender they identify with. Medical regulations banning transgender service are still in place, but military separations have been effectively halted.
Those service members may keep their gender identity secret or work among peers and superiors who look the other way, said Paula Neira, an LGBT military expert.
The new policy "needs to happen this year," Neira said. "This has to do with national defense and finding the best and brightest to serve."
The Department of Defense's review raises questions about how the military would address preferred gender pronouns, housing arrangements, fitness standards, uniform and grooming requirements, and to what extent the military health care system would offer hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery.
For Marberry, her aviation aspirations took a back seat to honesty.
"I was done hiding for four years," she said.
When she was growing up, Marberry said, she knew two things for sure.
One is that she wanted to be in the military. The other was that she is female.
Raised and home-schooled by a Christian family in conservative Lubbock, Texas, Marberry battled herself. Her desire to be a girl conflicted with what she was taught about right and wrong.
"I'm the only one, I feel weird like this, and I can't tell anyone that I feel this way because it's so weird," she thought.
At first, she lacked the vocabulary for the disconnect she felt between her spirit and her body. She just knew she felt at home playing among girls.
Childhood friend Ella Uptain said the boy she knew was caring, fiercely intelligent and would do anything for a laugh. She took the latter as an indication that her friend wasn't at ease.
"He was always trying to be accepted," said Uptain, 21.
While doing homework at age 12, Marberry stumbled upon an encyclopedia entry that struck her: "transsexualism."
"I was like, 'Wait, there's other people like me?' That opened up a huge world for me. I pretty much memorized the article there because that's all I had."
That same year, she started collecting and privately wearing girls' clothes — jeans, T-shirts and bras that she found in neighbors' trash after mowing their lawns.
Those treasures were thrown away by her parents, she said. They sent her to counseling after catching her on the computer late at night. She was researching gender identity. They assumed she had a porn addiction, she said, and she didn't correct them.
"That was a lesser evil to me. I was like 'Yeah, sure, that's what I was doing.'"
At 13, her parents called her in from the backyard to talk.
"We have a question to ask you," she recalled them asking. "Do you feel like you should've been born a girl?"
"My ears started ringing. Any time I lie, my ears start ringing, my heart starts beating. I'm a terrible liar. I was like 'No, of course not.'"
Marberry didn't come out to her family until 2013, halfway through her time at the academy. Her dad was the first to know.
"I remember he didn't understand it at first, and when he started to realize I actually want to transition, this isn't just dressing up, being a very conservative Christian guy, he was like 'No this is the path to death. This is a demon we need to get out of you,'" she said. "He believed at the time, maybe even still now, that this is identical to being gay, and being gay is against the Bible."
She said her mother and two siblings didn't take the news much better.
"I've become more acquaintances with my family rather than still a family member," she said.
Marberry's family did not respond to requests for comment by The Capital.
She maintains contact with her family, but conversations are strained, and the topic of gender is avoided, she said.
"The only entities in the world now that recognize me as male are the Department of Defense and my parents."
Waiting for change
After the federal "Don't ask, don't tell" law was repealed in 2010, lesbians, gays and bisexuals were permitted to serve openly in the military.
Marberry recalled that some midshipmen celebrated the announcement of the repeal.
"Everyone is like 'Yay! Game over.' And I'm just sitting there like, 'Hello?'"
The military ban on transgender service is based on Department of Defense medical standards — both physical and psychological.
The standards prohibit a change of sex and "psychosexual conditions" including "transsexualism ... and other paraphilias.''
The first anti-transgender U.S. military regulation was in 1983, three years after the American Psychiatric Association first recognized gender identity disorders or "transsexualism," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a research institute.
The regulation followed military medical rules against cross-dressing in 1942 and genital modification in 1961, Belkin said.
"The 1961 genital modification ban was intended for surgical reconstruction of ambiguous genitalia in infants or children — intersex conditions — not what we think of today as gender transition surgery," he said. "In the 1980s, however, the military started to rely on the 1961 'change of sex' rule to fortify its new ban on transgender persons (in contrast to cross-dressers), even though that was not its original purpose."
Since then, those rules have affected both accession and retention standards, said Neira — a trans woman, academy graduate and lawyer.
"If you had any idea that you were a transgender individual, that would bar you from service under the psychological regulations," she said. "If you had any history of a sex change, that would bar you from service. If you were in the process of transitioning, you were barred."
Living with honor
When Marberry got to the academy in 2011, she was in denial, simultaneously "hiding it and fighting it."
"This is wrong, this is evil," she believed. "I was trying to pray it away, hoping one day I'd meet a good Christian girl, settle down and have kids and all this would go away and I'd never feel this way again."
That didn't happen.
In an institution that denounces dishonesty through its Honor Concept, Marberry, her company's honor adviser in her plebe year, was forced to lie.
"I was the ambassador for the honor system to my company, and I'm lying about who I am every single day."
At that time, coming out, under Department of Defense policy, would have meant separation from the academy and the military, said Cmdr. John Schofield, an academy spokesman.
Classmates noticed Marberry was different, but they attributed it to the social awkwardness of a home-schooler going to college, said former roommate Brandon Thompson.
In the beginning, Thompson said, Marberry tended to be very masculine — in a way that didn't seem quite genuine.
"It almost seemed like at times she was trying to be more of a man and prove it to herself and her parents, who were not at all accepting," he said. "She was trying to hide who she was."
Near the end of her second year in 2013, Marberry sometimes ordered women's clothes on Amazon to indulge in brief, private moments of authenticity. She'd find a quiet bathroom in Bancroft Hall and lock the door. For 20 minutes, she'd be herself.
Getting a taste of the life she wanted made living as a man even more bitter.
"I started realizing this isn't going to go away," she said. "It made it harder to put the mask back on."
She drifted from her faith.
If God doesn't make mistakes, maybe there isn't a God.
What God would do this to someone?
As she entered her third year, Marberry's hair grew ragged, her uniform was disheveled and the room was dirty.
"She started to crack under the pressure of denying who she was really was," Thompson said.
In September of her third year, Marberry broke.
"I told myself if I couldn't find a chaplain or counselor that day, I was going to kill myself," she said.
After a desperate search of the campus, she found a chaplain and let herself fall apart.
"I'm not going to be a statistic," she told herself. "I'm not going to let this beat me. There is always something I can do to make it better, and at that point the thing I could do was decide to stop fighting it and be myself."
In the following weeks, Marberry discovered a service that teaches trans women the basics of makeup and feminine fashion.
When she presented as a woman in public for the first time, she felt right. She soon befriended other trans women, many of whom were veterans from various services and of different ranks.
"When I was out with them, shopping or going to a restaurant, it felt amazing," she said. "A weight was lifted."
But after weekends spent with her new friends in Washington, D.C., where no one would recognize her, she packed her dresses into a duffel bag and returned to the academy — as male.
Discrimination based on gender identity is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But it does not apply to the military, and therefore doesn't apply to Marberry.
"Every time I'd come back to the Yard, the weight would drop back down on me," she said.
Still, Marberry began to embrace her female identity more — at least within the confines of the dorm room she still shared with Thompson.
"I'd open the door, and Ali's in a dress putting on makeup," Thompson said. "It was her finally being able to come out of her shell and be the person she's always felt she's been."
Most of Marberry's classmates supported her or kept their opinions to themselves, Thompson said.
"It helped people at the academy who were not so comfortable with the idea," he said. "Now they realize transgender people are everywhere, even in the world's greatest military."
But Thompson was concerned, not about Marberry's gender identity, but about how the military would interpret it.
"I didn't want her to throw her career away," he said. "You can say what you want about what makes someone a good officer. I believe it's all about the character of the individual and compassion and there are few people that have that more than Ali Marberry."
Thompson, a Marine second lieutenant now stationed in Pensacola, hopes his former roommate can join him there soon.
After graduation, Marberry realized she couldn't continue living a double life. Before leaving for flight school that fall, she notified her academy superiors about her identity and was disqualified from flight school. Officials said she had "gender identity disorder," although that term is no longer recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.
With a policy announcement anticipated soon, Marberry may be the closest any transgender Naval Academy graduate has come to serving openly for her entire career.
"I need to serve with integrity or not at all," she said.
In Annapolis this spring, Marberry walked through the academy Yard in a dress, her identity and presentation in harmony.
She has female uniforms hanging in her closet at home in Glen Burnie, ready for a day when wearing them doesn't break the rules.
"The conclusion I've come to is God does not make mistakes," she said.
"And I'm not a mistake."
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