When the other Army ROTC cadets at the University of New Haven head out in the early-morning hours for physical training, Dylan Kohere is forced to stay behind.
Because he’s transgender, the 18-year-old freshman has been told he can’t participate in ROTC activities beyond a once-a-week class open to any interested student.
President Donald Trump announced on Twitter this summer that he would pursue barring transgender people from serving in the military, reversing course from the Obama administration, which lifted a previous ban in 2016. An official order came down in August.
So since Kohere arrived on campus, he hasn’t been able to participate in group workouts or training sessions where cadets learn things like hand-to-hand combat and how to read maps.
Kohere lives in a dorm with the ROTC cadets and is constantly reminded of what he can’t have. They talk about their training, he sees their uniforms.
“It doesn’t feel great,” Kohere said. “I get a little jealous sometimes. I could be there, but I can’t. It’s like it’s just within my reach, but I can’t."
Fed up and frustrated, the New Jersey native recently joined a lawsuit against the Trump administration, with help from two nonprofit legal rights organizations, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, based in Boston, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, based in San Francisco. Kohere said he had little hesitation about going public with his story.
“My entire life I’ve been that kid who stands up for myself, not only myself but for everybody else around me,” he said. “The only way to get this to change is to stand up and fight for it.”
Jennifer Levi, director of GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project and one of the lawyers representing Kohere, said her client has a lot at stake, including tens of thousands of dollars in ROTC scholarships he may be prohibited from receiving.
In its response to GLAD and NCLR’s lawsuit, which seeks an injunction to immediately halt the ban, the federal government argued that Kohere faces “no imminent threat of injury” because he won’t be able to apply to be a military officer until he graduates.
“Plaintiff Kohere is still a participating student in the ROTC program at his college and will not be eligible to apply for an officer’s commission until 2021,” the government wrote.
Robert O. Burns, a deputy chief of staff at U.S. Army Cadet Command in Fort Knox, Ky., wrote in court documents that it was “difficult, if not impossible, to assess any prejudice Dylan will encounter towards completing the ROTC program” until the Pentagon completed a full review of its transgender policy.
“Depending on the outcome of the final policy, Dylan could still be eligible for [full] entry into the ROTC program,” Burns wrote.
But Levi said Kohere is still being barred from fully participating in ROTC activities and “not being able to train right now hurts his chances” to eventually receive an Army contract.
“It’s not just that he’s being harmed in the future, he’s being harmed right now,” she said.
Kohere’s specific circumstances highlight how the ban is affecting not just transgender individuals who are now serving but those who are in ROTC programs, at military academies — like the Coast Guard Academy in New London — or are considering military service as a career, Levi said.
Levi said the case, Doe v. Trump, argues that the administration is violating the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution by identifying a specific group — transgender individuals — and barring them from military service.
Some states, including Connecticut, have filed amicus briefs in the case, arguing that the transgender service ban would force state-run institutions like the Connecticut National Guard or ROTC chapters at state universities to violate state anti-discrimination laws.
“We’ve had great support from other states, and military leaders,” Levi said. “Part of the process of reviewing the open service policy … determined it would be in the military's interest and strengthen the military ... to allow transgender people to openly serve.”
A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation, a think tank financed in part by the federal government, found that allowing transgender individuals to serve had minimal impact on military readiness and health care costs.
Kohere said it’s important to him to be able to serve openly. He feels more confident, stable and strong. And that was the belief he was operating under when he chose to come to UNH and sign up for the ROTC.
“A big part of the reason I was comfortable coming out as transgender in the ROTC was the announcement in the summer of 2016 that transgender people would be able to serve openly in the military,” Kohere wrote in court documents. “I was so excited that I would be able to achieve my goal of serving while remaining true to who I am.”
Kohere has been interested in the military since he was young. Both of his grandfathers served and his family instilled in him a respect for military service. After considering enlisting right after high school, Kohere chose the ROTC route so he could get a college education and begin his military service as an officer.
When he saw Trump’s tweets, Kohere felt like he was being personally targeted and that all of the work he had put toward building a military career — staying physically fit, getting good enough grades to qualify for an ROTC scholarship — was for nothing.
“When President Trump sent out all of those tweets it kind of just felt like … all the work I had done … preparing for this, and preparing to be able to do this for the rest of my life, just no longer applied,” he said. “It didn’t matter. It almost felt like a waste of time.”
Kohere said he doesn’t place blame on the university or the local ROTC chapter. His sergeant has been supportive, he said. But when Kohere arrived, officials weren't certain what to do. The question was run up the chain of command and the answer was that he couldn’t participate.
“Nobody here is maliciously out to get me,” Kohere said. “I’ve really had nothing but support.”
A criminal justice major, Kohere is considering law enforcement or some other kind of federal service as a backup career plan. But for now he plans to continue sharing his story and hopes a victory in court will come soon so he can rejoin his classmates.
“I’m willing to fight through this as long as I have to,” Kohere said. “It’s not something I’m ever thinking about giving up on, it’s something I’m always going to fight for.”