“When I was a little boy, there were three things that I wanted to be when I grew up,” transgender activist and veteran Laila Ireland said. “I wanted to be a soldier like my dad, a doctor or nurse like my mom and Miss America.”
Ireland spoke at the K-State Alumni Center as a guest of the Gender Collective. She served for 12 years as a combat medic and completed two tours in Iraq.
Ireland and her husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland, were the subjects of the 2015 New York Times op-doc, Transgender, at War and in Love, which drew national attention and led to the creation of a feature length documentary, Transmilitary, which is set to be released later this year.
“Being a trans woman and a veteran can be rather difficult at times. But, because I am afforded this platform to share my story,” Ireland said. “I can relate as a veteran, and show that trans people are people as well, and we can do the job just like everyone else. I can also show the LGBT community that we can serve this country greatly and still be our authentic selves.”
During her lecture, Ireland discussed what defines gender, saying it is not defined by a person’s sexual orientation, wardrobe or hairstyle, and it often does not fit within the binary system.
“We are continuing to blur the lines of the binary system,” Ireland said. “Yes, society is toxic for trans people, but we can still be ourselves and respectful to people who disagree with us.”
One misconception Ireland noted during her presentation was the belief that transgender people only join the military for its medical benefits, which she disagreed with.
“I joined the military because I come from a military family background and I want to serve my country,” Ireland said. “It wasn’t because I wanted to transition. It wasn’t because there are medical costs I can’t afford. It’s because I love this great country, and I’m proud to be an American.”
Last month, President Trump announced a plan to ban transgender troops from serving in the military. Ireland, as a trans veteran and spouse of an active trans service member, believes that it is not her job to ridicule the administration, but spoke against the ban.
“We have been serving for years, just like LGB folks have been serving for years, without any incidents because we haven’t come out,” Ireland said. “My genitals do not dictate how I do a job. My genitals never had one moment where they impacted me while I was saving a service member’s life out on the battlefield.”
“I hope the audience takes away a greater appreciation for what it is like to be a person, not just a sensationalized headline, at the intersection of transgender identity and military service,” said Sam Sharpe, graduate student in biology and treasurer of the K-State Gender Collective. “I hope they also take away a better understanding of how we all exist at the intersections of different identities and experiences.”
By sharing her story, Ireland said she hopes to bridge the gap between people of different gender identities and inspire hope in people across the LGBT community.
“I believe that if we have any power as people, it is the power to tell our stories,” Ireland said. “Being able to have this platform is key to having a successful integration amongst folks who don’t understand the LGBT spectrum. I want to empower people to share their stories, share their journey.”
Though Ireland notes that complete acceptance is a long way away, she still hopes that her experiences can bring about some form of unity.
“With each day that passes by in this lifetime, we are — through forums like this where we talk about our identities — showing that we are human,” Ireland said. “I’m relatable. I’m just like you. I cry and I sleep and I eat, same as you.”