Honoring Transgender Veterans of Color on Veteran’s Day: Q&A with Former Spc. Bryce J. Celotto

Michelle Kim
Nov 11, 2019 · 12 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Former Spc. Bryce J. Celotto

Bryce J. Celotto is a 27 year old Black, queer, transmasculine U.S. Army veteran, LGBTQ advocate and educator originally from Charlotte, North Carolina who now resides in Oakland, California. During his military service, Bryce realized his gender identity did not align with his sex assigned at birth, and he began his transition to his true self.

After his time in the military, Former Spc. Bryce J. Celotto went on to pursue a career in public policy, advocacy, education and youth development. Bryce graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Boston Honors College — magna cum laude — with a B.A. in History. He is also a graduate of Brown University, where he earned his Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.), with a concentration in Social Studies/History Secondary Education. When he isn’t working Bryce enjoys cooking, spending time by Lake Merritt, rooting on the Oakland A’s and reading.

Q: Let’s start with identities. What are different identities that have impacted your lived experiences?

Bryce: There are several identities that have impacted my lived experience for as long as I can remember. I identify as a queer, transmasculine Black person who is also Southern and a military veteran (among other things).

For me, being queer, Black and from the South come first. Being a Black, queer person from the South I was always forced to advocate for myself from a young age. This started in elementary school regarding race because I have a White mother. So growing up as a person of color, with a white mom in the South really impacted how I view race. I was frequently asked as a kid if my mom was my “real mom” i.e. biological mom — which yes she is — but getting that question my entire life made me acutely aware that I was “different” or “othered.” This feeling of difference, or otherness, only grew as I came out as queer at 16, and then transgender when I was 19. I am really proud of being from the South because I think it’s a largely misunderstood region, and growing up there I learned a lot about identity, community, resilience and fighting for what you deserve.

Q: Can you tell us about your service — how many years did you serve, what branch of the military did you serve in, anything you’d like to share about the experience?

Bryce: I enlisted in the Army National Guard when I was seventeen years old, I was a junior in high school. I attended Basic Training (the Army’s version of “boot camp”) at Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri in Summer 2009 after completing my junior year of high school. While most of my friends spent that summer working summer jobs as lifeguards, babysitters or at local fast food restaurants I spent the summer completing 9 weeks of rigorous combat training that encompassed weapons training, basic combat first aid, daily physical fitness, team building challenges and other combat related training.

The Army National Guard is a reserve component of the U.S. Army, so you serve 1-weekend a month during your drill weekend, and a minimum of 2 weeks full-time in the summer for what is called Annual Training (commonly referred to as AT). Army National Guard members are also deploy overseas for a variety of missions, combat and humanitarian related. In the National Guard you receive the same training, uniforms and are held to the same standards as you would on active duty. You are a soldier in the U.S. Army like any other.

I served for roughly four years in North Carolina and in Washington, D.C. My original plan was to serve 20+ years in the military, and even commission as an officer one day after college. My military career was ultimately cut short because of my gender transition.

I enlisted as a military police (MP) soldier, not necessarily because I had any interest in law enforcement, but in 2009/2010 “females” could not enlist in the infantry (that has since changed and several women have complete infantry training in recent years). At seventeen I wanted to be close to the action, and adventure, which meant going the MP route, because honestly the training and mission of military police soldiers is not that different than the infantry. I completed my Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in the Fall of 2010 back at Ft. Leonard Wood where I received training in law enforcement tactics and urban combat operations.

Q: Why did you decide to join the Army?

Bryce: I always knew I was going to join the military from a young age, I would say I was probably like eight or nine when the idea first popped into my head. Growing up I did not ever know my dad, but I was very close to my grandfather who was basically my dad in every way. My grandfather served in World War II as a Marine, and frequently told me about his experiences from a very young age. My grandfather’s stories about his time in the South Pacific during World War II really inspired me, and they really got me interested in military history-I later went on to study History in college largely because of this.

Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away right before I turned 13, and when that happened I promised him, and myself, that I would join the military to carry on the family tradition.

Image for post
Image for post
Bryce’s Grandfather + Memorabilia

I was also just always a very active and athletic kid. I grew up a competitive athlete in several sports so the physical aspect of the military was very appealing to me. I wanted a physical challenge, and I wanted to be able to prove to myself and others that I could be “one of the guys” when it came to physical training (at this point I hadn’t transitioned but the thought that my gender was different was very much front of mind).

Additionally, growing up with a single mom and having two younger siblings we struggled a lot financially — particularly during my middle and high school years — so being able to help my family out with money and bills was also a motivating factor.

I never really intended on joining the Army specifically, originally my plan was to join the Marine Corps like my grandfather, or the Navy (the Marine Corps is under the Department of the Navy). However, to enlist in the Marine Corps you have to be a Senior in high school, and you cannot leave for Boot Camp until you complete high school. By the time I was a junior, I was ready to enlist, and didn’t want to wait further. Plus, I met a great Army National Guard recruiter, so the Army it was. I often joke that if my grandfather had still been alive I likely would’ve waited the extra year to join the Marine Corps, he made fun of the Army lot and would always say it stood for “Aren’t Ready for Marines Yet.”

I still root for Navy in the Army-Navy game every year when Westpoint plays the Naval Academy in football…sorry Army!

Q: What are some ways workplaces can support Veterans?

Bryce: I think number one is just honoring veterans’ service and the unique education, and skillset you get from the military. Not all Veterans have a formal educational background, and I think often times workplaces look at that and say “Oh we can’t, or won’t, hire you, or promote you because you don’t have XYZ degree”. When the reality is I learned more in the military than I did in any classroom, including being at an Ivy League institution, and I think that is true for most veterans. I feel like most workplaces don’t understand how the skills you learn through your training, tech school, deployments and leadership roles you are in translate to the civilian world.

The military — like no other job in the world — teaches you to work under immense pressure in an effective and collaborative way. It teaches you attention to detail, communication skills (often under duress) and so much more.

One thing employers can do to be more vet inclusive is to re-examine their hiring practices and requirements. Before you list “degree required” or “x numbers of years of experience in this field required” ask yourself, “Does a person really need a degree for this job”, “Does this person really need x number of years in this specific field to do this job” — ask yourself what other skills, qualities and experiences are relevant to the job that veterans may bring. Veterans are the most trainable people on earth, because in the military you are constantly learning, constantly receiving rapid fire training for a new job, new geographic location, new mission.

Often times veterans have been leaders since they were young. I have friends that became squad leaders overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan in their early 20’s, who were in charge of 4–8 soldier teams on daily patrols in some of the most dangerous places in the world. They had to account for their soldiers, their gear, their teams safety, create a mission plan and execute that plan, and communicate with higher ups at all times to collaborate to make sure everyone comes home safe. Aren’t those the kind of people that every organization and company wants on their team?

Secondly, I think workplaces need to be more accommodating to the diverse needs a lot of veterans have. For example, some veterans may have disabilities — whether visible or invisible (traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, etc) and I think it’s hard for civilian employers to understand what that means, and what veterans need to really overcome that. Whether it means a more flexible work schedule to attend VA medical appointments — which typically are arduous to schedule and can be far away — certain disability accommodations like having a service dog, working from home occasionally, etc.

There are a lot of steps employers can take to be more inclusive and I think it starts with asking your employees who are veterans “Hey, what do you need from us to feel supported?” If you don’t have any veterans on your staff then it starts with looking at your management team and asking “Hey, why don’t we have any veterans on staff? What are we doing wrong where we are missing out on this huge talent pool?” That seems like a really simple starting point, to just ask folks what they need or to examine your internal HR practices, but I think all to often employers don’t do that.

Q: For folks who may not be aware, can you describe the impact of the Trans Military Ban? How has it impacted you personally?

Bryce: When I first enlisted in the military in 2009 I was not out as transgender. However, I did identify as Queer. I was very much a stereotypical “tomboy”, and I was in my first serious relationship with another girl. This is important to note because in 2009 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) — the policy that barred gay, lesbian and bisexual service members from serving openly in the military (DADT had nothing to do with Transgender people, it was all about sexuality not gender identity or expression) was still very much the law of the land. So when I enlisted I had to actually sign a piece of paper as part of my enlistment contract that stated I wouldn’t engage in “homosexual conduct”, and that I understood the consequences of engaging in such conduct (and being caught) would ultimately be discharge from the U.S. military. That being said, I was already enlisting under hostile terms, even before I knew what the word Transgender meant, because at the time I really did not have any understanding of what it meant to be trans, or that I could even transition into my full self.

Ironically enough the military is what helped me step into my Trans identity boldly and fiercely in a lot of ways. The military is hyper gendered — with separate uniforms for “females” and “males”, separate physical fitness standards, separate barracks, separate job opportunities… you get the idea. In the military I was constantly being pushed into a box as a “female”, this ultimately made me step back and realize “Wait, this isn’t who I am, or who I want to be”. At first the military gave me space to explore my gender. Masculinity is generally more accepted than femininity in the military so when I cut my hair, started working out more, started presenting as more masculine no one really thought twice about it initially. Also, your first name is largely irrelevant in the military, it’s all about your rank and last name so also not having to deal with the dysphoria that came with hearing my birth name also felt really good.

I could essentially blend in and hide my transition early on. That all changed right around the time I was twenty-one, I would say. By age twenty-one, I had been on testosterone for a few years, my chest was starting to give me more and more dysphoria and I wanted to start exploring having what is commonly referred to as “top surgery” and more and more the initial space the military had created for me to explore my gender was starting to shrink as my outward appearance became more masculine to others. Ultimately, while in the D.C. Army National Guard I came out to my commander and First Sergeant as Transgender. I knew doing so would likely mean the end of my career, but I also could not hide it anymore for my own well being. I was tired of shrinking myself.

At that point I was on the fast track to attend leadership school and get promoted to Sergeant, I scored well on my physical fitness tests, and I had great camaraderie with others in my unit. Basically I was a model soldier, but none of that mattered since I was transgender. My unit actually wanted to retain me, my First Sergeant was visibly uncomfortable by the thought of having to discharge me simply over my gender identity, but ultimately the regulations pushed me out.

The Transgender military ban meant my dream of commissioning as a 2nd Lieutenant one day would never come to fruition. It meant the Army spent hundreds of thousands of dollars training me to do a job, which I was good at, but I could no longer do it simply because of my gender identity. I lost a lot because of the ban, but at the same time I also gained the opportunity to live my life authentically and open for the first time ever really, and I gained the opportunity to share my story with other LGBTQ veterans.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

Bryce: I am really proud of my service in the military, despite the roadblocks I faced due to my gender identity. I am very clear that joining the military likely saved my life, it gave me structure, community and a sense of purpose at a time where I felt like I was lacking all of that. The military gave me a very necessary outlet to explore myself during my adolescence, and early adult years.

More importantly, I want to share that my story isn’t all that unique when it comes to transgender military service. That is really important to say. There are approximately 15,000 transgender people who, despite Trump’s attempted ban, are still serving in the U.S. military today. Transgender people serve in some of the most critical roles in the U.S. military as intelligence analysts, drill sergeants, infantry soldiers, military police and more. The military is the largest single employer of transgender people in the United States, which is critical when you think about the incredibly high rates of unemployment and job discrimination that transgender people face in the United States.

Transgender people are TWICE as likely to be veterans compared to their cisgender counterparts — 15% of respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey identified as Veterans, which is 2x the rate in the U.S. population (8%). Additionally, 18% of respondents in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey have served in the military.

Transgender people have always played an integral role in history — whether in the military or in the civilian sector — and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. We are here, we exist, and we will continue to serve this country in a multitude of ways.

Did you find this post helpful? Follow us on Medium and join Awaken’s Newsletter to receive relevant updates, new blog alerts, and invitations to listing-only events!

About Awaken

We exist to create compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations to develop inclusive leaders and teams. We’re tired of surface level conversations around diversity and inclusion — let’s go deeper. It’s time for real conversations with real people. Check us out at www.visionawaken.com!

Awaken Blog

Creating compassionate space for uncomfortable…

Michelle Kim

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO @ Awaken | Activist | Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advocate | Keynote Speaker | Writer www.visionawaken.com

Awaken Blog

Creating compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations

Michelle Kim

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO @ Awaken | Activist | Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advocate | Keynote Speaker | Writer www.visionawaken.com

Awaken Blog

Creating compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store