When the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is officially lifted, one group says they will be left behind in the closet.
Transgender military veterans, including some in San Diego, are calling for equal treatment and a chance to serve their country.
"I am really proud of my military service," said U.S. Navy veteran Autumn Sandeen.
For Sandeen, her pride collided with frustration last April when she and five others were arrested near the White House as they protested "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The bill to repeal the policy was passed in 2010, but it has not yet gone into effect. When the ban was repealed, Sandeen said, "It was a bittersweet moment of, 'we've achieved something as a broad community,' but my subcommunity -- transgender people -- were not addressed."
Born a male, Sandeen said that even as a teen she felt trapped in the wrong body.
Sandeen joined the Navy and kept her secret for two decades before retiring.
"If I had told people about being transgender, I would have been kicked out for being mentally disaffected," she said.
According to military regulations, a gender identity issue is a mental disorder. Those who openly identify with the opposite sex or cross-dress are banned from enlisting. Military regulations say cross-dressing can be grounds for court-martial.
"We're not allowing capable people who have something to offer the country to serve their country," said Sandeen.
An advocacy group estimated there could be as many as 300,000 transgender military veterans. Sandeen said she hopes the U.S. will join seven other countries in allowing transgender troops.
Attorney Bridget Wilson has represented a handful of transgender personnel kicked out of the military. She said the first change will likely first have to come from the world of mental health.
"That means you have to get it out of the book of mental disorders because that's the basis of the discrimination," said Wilson.
When asked about the critics who say being transgender is a distraction, Sandeen said, "It's a distraction because we have not laid the groundwork." What is needed is greater awareness of the transgender community, she said.
Sandeen has undergone hormone treatment and now lives as a woman.
A few years ago, Sandeen bought a female uniform for photos so she could be remembered for who she was and not for who others thought she was. It was an action that would not have been necessary if Sandeen had been allowed to serve openly.
While federal law prevents VA facilities from performing sex-change surgeries, some VA centers provide hormone treatment and counseling.
10News spoke to several groups opposed to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and they said allowing transgender troops to serve openly would be a big distraction and a problem for morale.
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