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OSI special agent shares trans journey to inspire others

By Thomas Brading | Office of Special Investigations Public Affairs

TEXAS (AFNS)  The Flower Mound, Texas, native seemed to have what some would describe as a standard childhood. He played sports, made friends and spent his summers outside. Still, deep down, he knew something felt different.

Ireland was born female. After coming out as a lesbian to his mother at the age of 12, he believed making the declaration would more accurately explain why he felt different. However, the proclamation only explained his feelings in part.

Facing many trials and tribulations on his journey to self-realization, he faced societal rejection and was bullied long before deciding to enlist. Still, he forged ahead and joined the U.S. Air Force, not imagining his military career would begin on the cusp of policy changes for gay and transgender service members.

Serving in silence

In 2010, Ireland traveled to Joint Base San Antonio for basic military training, surmising he would most likely have to serve in silence.

“I thought, what if I’m discovered?” Ireland said, thinking back to the early days of his military career, figuring he would just have to hide his identity. He felt it fit the “service before self” philosophy.

The year after, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” took place. This federal law banned lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals in the military from disclosing their sexual orientation or discussing their same-sex relationships. Although it was a step in the right direction, Ireland still felt incomplete.

‘A good Airman’

Despite his military career taking off, the security forces Airman had a difficult time fitting into his lesbian identity. In search of answers to life’s biggest questions, he turned to the internet, finding the term “transgender” popping up over and over in the results. After reading and learning more about this term, he finally felt there was a word to describe his true feelings.

Yet, professional obstacles remained. Although DADT was repealed, the fight for trans rights continued. Ireland knew if he came out as transgender, he would likely face a discharge from military service.

“I wanted to make this work because I’m a good Airman,” he said. “My thoughts were to medically transition while also serving in uniform.”

In February 2012, the Defender began his medical transition at an off-base medical facility.

Living authentically

In late 2014, things changed when Ireland learned of his first deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Assigned to the Office of Special Investigations, he would later call the agency home.

Being deployed helped Ireland live his truth in a new world. He was finally happy and felt like “one of the guys.” Even in the sweltering heat of Kandahar, life was like a breath of fresh air for the senior airman.

“It was liberating to be treated like everyone else,” he said. Finally, Ireland’s professional and personal lives mirrored each other.

“When we looked at him, we didn’t know anything different – at least I didn’t,” said Lt. Col. Victoria Mayo, Joint Interagency Task Force West – Programs Division chief and his commander during the deployment.

“Ireland came into my office and said, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute? I’m transgender. I’m female going through the process of transitioning’ and he explained everything to me,” she added.

In addition to Mayo’s support, Ireland also received support from those who knew his identity.

Ireland was straightforward and honest about his identity, unaware of what would follow.

“I attribute this acceptance to my being upfront and my job performance speaks for itself,” he said.

Out in a big way

Following his deployment, he became one of the most recognizable trans individuals after coming out publicly in The New York Times before the policy changed. It was a move inspired by his deployment service.

According to Ireland, he doesn’t see himself as a landmark figure, but simply as an Airman doing his job. While being the first transgender male to deploy as his authentic self, he felt compelled to speak out for transgender rights.

“At that point, a lot of my friends were getting discharged,” he said. “I thought, policy-wise, this can happen; we can change this policy.”

Around this time, Laila Ireland, his wife and then-fiancée, experienced a similar situation coming out as transgender but with a different outcome. As a Soldier, she did not receive the same support as Ireland. The couple came out together to The New York Times. Although they dreamed of serving in the military until retirement, building a home, creating a family and everything else young couples strive to achieve, it was all at risk for a cause they believed in.

Now retired from military service, Laila has remained a vocal advocate for transgender equality as well as being a military spouse within her community. In 2017, she was named the Military Spouse of the Year at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.

Changing of times

Although the military’s trans policy experienced difficulties in the years that followed, Ireland’s career has been filled with success.

“I’ve never been more supported in my career than I have since I’ve been in OSI. It is just an amazing family, an amazing community.”

Ireland hopes others will hear his story and be inspired to live their truth because everybody deserves dignity and respect.

“Respect and dignity will be extended to all Airmen, Guardians and Department of the Air Force civilians regardless of their gender identity,” said Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones, who recently met Ireland.

In the end, “I want you to see me. You don’t have to agree with me, but I just want you to see me.” 

OSI special agent shares trans journey to inspire others
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