AUSTIN (KXAN) — A transgender student in his first year at the Univesity of Texas at Austin said he is no longer qualified to use his Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship after the Department of Defense’s new transgender policy went into effect. As first reported by the Daily Texan, Map Pesqueira, 19, says this change in policy is impacting his dream of serving in the military as well as his ability to get an education.
Pesqueira, who identifies as a transgender male, explained that his timing with the ROTC scholarship means he will not be grandfathered under the Department of Defense’s previous policy which began allowing transgender individuals to openly serve in the military three years ago.
On April 12, the new policy from President Donald Trump’s administration began. It states that people who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria can no longer enlist if they have had hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery. The policy leaves room for possible exceptions, for example, applicants with a history of gender dysphoria may be able to serve if they are stable for 36 months and are able to serve in their biological sex.
The new policy allows anyone serving in the military or under contract to enter the military who has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria to remain in the military under their preferred gender for the rest of their careers. (The American Psychiatric Association defines gender dysphoria as when a person is in conflict between the gender they were assigned at birth and the gender which they identify with)
Critics of the new policy refer to it as a ban on trans service members, but the Department of Defense maintains that it is not a ban.
The President first announced the policy in 2017 via Twitter, sparking the creation of an actual federal policy. In January, the Supreme Court ruled to allow the government to enforce the policy, despite legal challenges to it in lower courts.
A dream of serving in the military
Pesquiera was born female but never identified with that gender.
“I lived my life as a male, I saw myself socially as male, wore male clothes, had the haircut, everything,” he said
In high school, Pesquiera began hormone therapy and legally switched his name as well as his gender pronouns.
He also wanted to serve in the military from a young age. He grew up in San Antonio and has fond memories of going to visit Fort Sam Houston.
“When I got older, it got to the point where I wanted to be in the military because I wanted to serve my country, that was the number one reason, since I was a kid,” Pesqueira said.
At the time he applied for the ROTC scholarship, he applied under his biological gender and the name he was given at birth. He began taking hormones just before he was accepted into UT and just before he was awarded the ROTC scholarship his senior year of high school.
“I’ve been able to be who I am and not have to suppress it,” Pesqueira said of his gender transition.
“I believe if I hadn’t started this transition I really don’t know where I would be, I probably would not have applied to go to college or not be where I am today,” he said.
He liked the idea of training to be an officer in the military while also pursuing a college education.
The scholarship, he explained, is a three-year scholarship which begins after your freshman year of college. It wasn’t easy, but Pesquiera managed to pay for his first year at UT by taking out loans, fully believing his final three years would be largely covered by the scholarship.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go to UT Austin without that scholarship,” he said.
After receiving the scholarship, he was assigned to an advisor within the Department of Defense, someone who Pesqueria said was tasked with assisting transgender individuals in the ROTC program.
Starting and communicating the new policy
Pesquiera said he never anticipated that Trump’s policy for transgender military members would actually go into effect, but he started to get worried when the policy went before the Supreme Court.
Though the DOD has said that, “all those most immediately affected by the update have the information they need about the policy,” Pesquiera said he had to reach out to his Department of Defense contacts to receive more information about what would happen next.
He recalls in mid-March contacting his DOD advisor who responded back by emailing him a four-page fact sheet on which applicants could still serve under the new policy. That was the first time Pesqueria had been informed when the new policy would go into effect.
At that time Pesqueria had just completed what’s known as “top surgery,” a procedure to help him transition into a more male physique. He was caught up in the recovery process and didn’t thoroughly read the fact-sheet until April.
“It wasn’t until later I realized even if I try to get medically qualified for the Department of Defense, which is required to get contracted [by the military], I won’t be able to because there’s not enough time between now and April, 12,” Pesqueira said.
He believes the process of getting medically qualified would take him months, there just wasn’t enough time at that point. Which meant he would not have a chance of being grandfathered in under the old rules.
A simple chart in the fact sheet laid out for Pesquiera that under the new policy, applicants like him with a history of medical transition treatment would be “presumptively disqualified” from serving in the military.
“That’s when I started to realize they are not accepting or wavering in officer candidates, ROTC cadets and I’d be subject to this policy,”
Pesqueria believed this meant he would be left under the rules of the new policy and feared it would force him to serve in a military that wouldn’t recognize his preferred gender. So he emailed his ROTC advisors at UT and at the DOD, asking if there is a way to cancel his scholarship on April 8.
“I understand that those who are not medically qualified by this Friday will be held to the new standard of the policy and since I am already well into my transition, I believe I would be disqualified anyway because of this,” he wrote.
That same day, his DOD advisor replied back in an email that started off saying, “I’m sorry things turned out the way they did,” and directing Pesquiera to talk with his UT advisor about his scholarship questions. His DOD advisor confirmed, that yes Pesquiera would be medically disqualified under the new standards on April 12.
But the advisor acknowledged he did not know what criteria and processing will be used in considering army waivers for transgender applicants, he promised to follow up with more information.
The advisor finished his email with, “it has been an honor and a privilege to have worked with you on this journey since 6 Apr 2018:)”.
“Pretty much it felt like he left me in a dark room, turned off the light, closed the door, and left me high and dry,” Pesquiera recalled of his advisor’s response.
Pesquiera said he has not heard from his DOD advisor since. Nor has he reached out to the DOD for more clarification, he still hopes to serve in the military and doesn’t want to jeopardize his future chances. But he understood that email on April 8 and his advisor’s tone to mean that past April 12, he would no longer qualify for his scholarship or to serve in the military.
Afterward, Pesquiera did meet with his ROTC advisor at UT who informed him that if the Trump Administration’s policy is reversed, it could be possible for Pesqueria to pick up his scholarship again later on in his time at UT or to pursue ROTC in graduate school.
Pesqueria said he is open to those options in the future, but right now he is just trying to stay positive.
“It’s very hard and it’s taken a toll on me emotionally because that’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid is serve my country and be a part of the military,” he said. “And now that I’m not able to do that because of my identity and because of who I am, it makes me start to think why did I have to be born transgender? Why am I like this?”
He is choosing to share his story with media outlets because he wants the public to understand how this policy can impact people who are relying on military scholarships for their education.
“Not only is it impacting my education, but it’s affecting me being able to join the military in general, as an officer,” he said.
In the immediate future, Pesqueira is worried about how he will continue to pay for his education at UT. He has started a Go Fund Me Page to help continue his studies for the time being.
He hopes to meet with UT President Greg Fenves about his circumstances and has already reached out to Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro’s office.
A spokesperson with the Department of Defense told KXAN Tuesday that DOD cannot comment on this particular case as they don’t know the details. But she pointed KXAN to details of the policy: “no person, solely on the basis of gender identity, will be denied continuation of service.”
The DOD spokesperson also noted that people are exempt from the new 2018 policy (and fall under the 2016 policy) if they were selected for entrance into an officer commissioning program, and either were selected into ROTC in their preferred gender or received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria while a Service member.
KXAN read Pesquiera the DOD’s response, he said no one had ever communicated that information with him before. He acknowledged that there is a disconnect between what he was told by the DOD and what the DOD has been quoted saying since his story has been reported.
“The information I got was that I would be disqualified and I wouldn’t be able to serve under the new policy,” Pesqueira reiterated.
From conversations he has had with his DOD advisor, Pesqueira believes that there are several other transgender students with ROTC scholarships facing similarly difficult situations.
The DOD said in a recent release that their department doesn’t track the number of transgender service members. They noted that a 2016 survey showed under 9,000 service members considered themselves transgender. DOD knows that 1,400 service members are diagnosed with gender dysphoria and fewer than ten service members are recieving gender reassignment surgery.
UT spokesperson J.B. Bird told KXAN that because of federal privacy law, UT does not comment on individual cases with students like this.
“Because every student situation is unique, we offer many different avenues of assistance for students who undergo sudden changes that might affect their access to a UT education,” Bird said. “These resources include our Student Emergency Services office and the Graduation Help Desk, which both work closely with the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid. Our staff are experienced in these situations and stand ready to help students navigate the resources they need to complete their education.”
Pesqueria hopes universities take note of his story.
“This whole ban is affecting people from pursuing an education or from continuing education, it’s really really awful,” he said. “And I hope there’s something that the University of Texas at Austin and other colleges and universities in the United States can do to make sure people who are in my same situation are taken care of financially and academically.”