RICHMOND, Va. –
When Maj. Keilyn DiStefano started her military career in 1998, it was in a different state, under a different name, with a different gender assignment. Back then, she wasn’t herself.
“I didn’t know back then that my yearning to be a woman was natural and ok,” DiStefano said. “It wasn’t acceptable at the time, so I kept it secret and thought it was a phase I had to grow out of.”
Joining the U.S. Army was part of that plan to out-grow her want of womanhood. She joined as an M1A1 Abrams armor crewman with the intent to “grow up and be man.”
“It’s difficult to understand how someone’s mind works when you haven’t experienced anything like it,” DiStefano says of being transgender, explaining that, for most people, their brains develop to match their anatomy. “Trans people are different. My brain developed down a path before my birth to recognize that my body should be like other girls, but my body developed the other way. That's what makes me trans; my neurology and anatomy are opposite.”
It took time for DiStefano to realize this truth, but, in 2010, she started her transition. She said she started taking hormonal supplements “under the radar,” but didn’t attempt any legal or medical changes. By then, she’d graduated college and earned her commission as a signal officer and was serving in the Georgia Army National Guard.
“Being trans in the Army was rough until fairly recently,” she said. For years, she hid who she was until changes to the military’s transgender policy allowed her to serve as herself.
In 2015, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced the review of the U.S. military’s ban on transgender people serving openly, and a year later, the ban was repealed on June 30, 2016.
Around that time, DiStefano was taking care of the administrative business that went along with her transition. She had her birth certificate amended, changed her name through the superior court in Georgia, then had her birth certificate amended again to reflect her new name, and, she said, “I got to transition and become my full self.”
With her new birth certificate in hand, she submitted a packet to amend her name on her federal recognition orders with the military, and, once that was approved, was able to change her name on her military ID and on her name tapes.
“It was an incredible experience getting to go through that name change and publicly be myself,” she said.
Once open transgender service was authorized in the military, DiStefano said she was among the first group of transgender Soldiers to receive a memo authorizing her to comport to the standards of her affirmed gender.
“Only then could I use the women’s restroom, insist on being referred to as ‘she,’ start growing my hair out, wear women’s dress blues, that sort of stuff,” DiStefano said.
In 2017, career opportunities brought DiStefano into the Virginia Army National Guard’s 91st Cyber Brigade. She’s been her true self the whole time she’s been in Virginia, but, she says, it’s a little bittersweet. She said she had a solid reputation as a signal officer in the Georgia Army National Guard prior to her transition, which was earned over the course of multiple overseas deployments and many years of outstanding service. Transferring to Virginia meant leaving that solid reputation, but it also meant starting fresh on the other side of her transition.
“When you do an interstate transfer, when you go to a different state, you’re starting from the ground floor building your reputation again,” DiStefano said. While that was daunting, she said it’s worked out really well. “I’m actually stronger than I gave myself credit for.”
She said she’s enjoyed incredible support in Northern Virginia and was able to weather the changing legislation on transgender military members. The ban on transgender individuals serving was reinstated in 2019 after a few years of legal proceedings. DiStefano said those individuals who started the official process while the ban wasn’t in effect were covered under the pre-ban policy and were allowed to continue their service. The ban was once again revoked earlier this year.
“What really makes being trans hard, is being attacked and oppressed by other people who either don’t understand or outright revile us,” DiStefano said. She said she’s hopeful for a future of inclusivity for members of the LGBTQ+ community, but that the fight for that inclusive future is far from over. The fight for equality is, she said, a big part of what LGBTQ+ Pride Month is all about.
“Pride is about standing up and declaring that we are who we are and we aren’t going to be shamed or terrorized into hiding who we are from the world,” said DiStefano. “The days when being gay or lesbian were against the law are over […], those days are gone because people fought back.”
DiStefano credits her ability to be herself to the activism of those who came before her, the “years, decades-long efforts by people much stronger than me.” She’s doing her small part to effect progress, serving as an example for her transgender brothers and sisters on what success looks like and working to be visible, transparent and available to those with questions on the trans experience. Ultimately, she said, “we deserve the same love, acceptance, support, respect, and full and open inclusion in society as anyone else.”