The estimated 200,000 transgender Americans of recruiting age includes James Wong, an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon University who, while in the Girl Scouts as a child, became an ace at survival skills, including starting a fire using only a flint and an ax.
“I like leading people, I like solving problems, I want to serve my country,” Mr. Wong said in an interview from his home in Los Angeles, where he is taking courses remotely. “The military is a natural fit for me.”
Mr. Wong, 20, initially considered applying to one of the United States service academies, but the ban kept him out. Instead he joined R.O.T.C., hoping that the policy would change by the time he graduated and could be commissioned as an officer. Before the virus ended classes, he woke up at 4:30 a.m. several time a week to go to physical training, but he knew that, under the ban, he would have to quit R.O.T.C. when it came time to take a military physical. Now he hopes to continue with R.O.T.C. this summer.
“I’ve met all the standards,” he said. “None of the cadets or commanders have any issues with me.”
When President Trump announced the ban, many legal scholars thought it would eventually be found by courts to violate the constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. But the legal process has moved so slowly that it has effectively denied many young people an opportunity to join the military, according to Shannon Minter, a civil rights attorney and the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, who sued the Department of Defense on behalf of Mr. Talbott and other transgender recruits.
“It was a ban based on nothing but discrimination, and we all knew it would be struck down, but maybe not in time to help,” he said.
Mr. Minter has spent years fighting Pentagon lawyers. Now that the Biden administration has reversed the regulation, his lawsuits are moot. But he added that the ban had an unlikely silver lining.
“Before Trump’s ban, most people were completely unaware that transgender people were even in the military — they were caught up in stereotypes,” he said. “I think this has elevated the acceptance. It has forced people to realize there are really talented and committed transgender people that want to serve.”