On the surface, Sergeant Shane Ortega, 28, doesn't stand out or appear out of the ordinary among his fellow Army soldiers.
He works out constantly (he even competes in bodybuilding competitions); he's obsessed with his girlfriend (a former model and aspiring doctor); and he gets giddy talking about both video games and chopping wood in Alaska.
He's covered in tattoos, wears tank tops that show off his physique and has light green eyes that pop in contrast to his dark skin (he's part black, Latino and Cherokee).
Even his road to military service is familiar: Faced with dwindling options after high school (a 1460 SAT score got him accepted into several colleges, but he couldn't afford to go), he enlisted first in the Marines and then in the Army.
The military, Ortega told HuffPost, was "a gateway to a better life." In 10 years, he's served in three combat tours -- two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan -- and says he thrived in the military environment because it demanded constant self-improvement.
Ortega, who now serves as a Chinook helicopter crew chief with the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, meets all the Army's physical fitness standards, gets positive reviews from his chain of command, and always strives to put the mission first, regardless of what he's facing in his private life.
And lately, he's had a lot going on.
Despite his solid performance and commitment to serve, SGT Ortega has been at risk of getting kicked out of the Army because in official Army paperwork, he is identified as a woman.
Ortega, who was assigned female at birth, is one of the military's few openly trans service members. While roughly 15,500 transgender people are estimated to be currently serving in the military, almost all of them are forced to do so in secret since the Department of Defense's current policy forbids openly transgender individuals from serving.
The Army's Standards of Medical Fitness states that transsexualism, gender identity, and transvestism are among several "personality or psychosexual conditions," including voyeurism and paraphilias, that "render an individual administratively unfit."
But, that is changing soon.
Since the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 2011, the military has taken incremental steps towards full LGBT inclusion. Numerous studies and memos, including a supposedly confidential paper from the Congressional Research Service (Congress's "think tank"), have concluded that the ban should be repealed, and it is now significantly harder to kick transgender service members out of the service for being transgender.
In April, the Washington Post published an article detailing Ortega's situation and the DoD's current policy position. Since then, Ortega has become something of a poster child for the issue of transgender people in the military.
With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, Ortega has met with senators, White House staffers and senior Pentagon officials, and he's been included in some discussions about how the policies should change.
Along with Ortega's presence in the spotlight has come renewed pressure on the Pentagon to act -- and on Tuesday, it finally did.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced plans to lift the ban by early 2016, calling the military's current policy "outdated." Over the next six months, he wrote in a statement, a working group will study "the policy and readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly." During that time, a senior Pentagon official will be the approval authority for discharge of transgender service members.
For Ortega, the onslaught of attention and scrutiny has been, at times, overwhelming. But, he says, he knew what he was getting into and felt he had to be the one to do it.
"I had an exemplary service record," he told HuffPost. "I had already been communicating with the Army and there was nothing for them to point a finger at; there was nothing for them to use as fuel to be anti. It was just, 'This person exists and we have nothing bad to say about them.'"
That's why, he says, he's been careful to follow the rules to a 'T' -- even the downright ridiculous ones like occasionally having to wear the women's dress uniform in order to meet the Army's regulations. The skirt and fitted blouse barely fit him, but "I just play the game," he says, "even though it's incredibly humiliating and highly uncomfortable. I have to prove a point. I'm doing everything they ask me to do."
Ortega works hard, keeps a "super-soldier haircut," and says he's "purposefully setting this precedent."
"If you're the example of this type of person," he says of his high visibility, "they're going to judge all others by you."
Ortega is no stranger to advocacy work. He was vocal about the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and in some ways, he says, advocacy was ingrained in him from his family history.
As a kid, he spent summers at his great-grandmother's house on reservation land in Kentucky so he was very conscious of injustices towards Native Americans. His great-grandfather's family were slaves and he grew up hearing stories about segregation, Jim Crow laws, and racial strife.
His mother is a lesbian who served under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In a May op-ed for the New York Times, he wrote, that he grew "up in a repetitively gender neutral environment and the LGBT community."
In his advocacy work today, Ortega pushes for nonbinary options in the military, equal opportunity protections, safe spaces for queer youth, and pushing back against the "media obsession with trans men’s medical histories."
He admits that the "the bureaucracy of advocacy" can be trying. "There will always be those negative nancies," he told HuffPost, "who are like, 'Oh, you're not doing it right.' I have to remind myself though that it is working."
Based on the Pentagon's recent announcement and on the letters from both veteran and active-duty trans service members that flood his Inbox, Ortega is doing something right. Some of the people he hears from, he noted in an open letter to President Obama, are "desperate, alienated, alone and suicidal."
But America's military, he wrote, is used to setting a precedent for inclusion and equal opportunity.
"The force," he wrote to Obama, "has gone through desegregation, women’s inclusion, equal pay for both sexes, repeal of DADT and equality benefits for gay married couples," all ahead of the rest of the country.
It's one of the reasons, Ortega says, that he's very happy about his time in the military and that his overall experience, including the people he's served with, has been a supportive one.
"I got a lot of really good, positive things from being in," he said. "The military was the arena where I could exceed expectation and push myself to my maximum capability but at the same time have gentle perimeters to make sure I didn't go too far."
Since his commitment is up in 2017, however, Ortega is weighing the options for his future. He might still reenlist, but he's also toying with the idea of moving to Toronto to be closer to his girlfriend, a transwoman and an activist herself, or even the possibility of entering politics.
Regardless of what the future holds, however, it seems likely that Ortega will continue to "shake things up," as he says.
"I won't be proud," he told HuffPost, "until [repealing the transgender ban] is accomplished and then I'll find something else to be obsessive about."
Language has been updated to note that the Pentagon announced its plans to repeal the ban on transgender service members.
Also on HuffPost:
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