From the time he was 5 years old, Shane Ortega knew that he did not identify with the gender he was assigned at birth. His mother was a member of the National Community Church (NCC), which accepts individuals from the LGBTQ community, and a part of the LGBTQ community herself. These factors allowed him to be knowledgeable about the LGBTQ community starting from a young age.
In addition, he spent summers with his grandmother, who is part of the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes and lives on a reservation. She recognized that he was a “two-spirit” person, a Cherokee word that means someone who does not fit into the traditional gender binary.
As part of Love Your Body Week, the Women’s Center brought Ortega, the first openly transgender man in the military, to speak about his experiences in and out of the military.
Ortega served 11 years in the United States Military and completed three combat tours, two as a Marine and one in the Army. When he began his service, he was registered in the army as female.
For the final two years of his service, Ortega was not allowed to participate in active duty because of the transgender ban. In July of this past summer, the ban that prohibited transgender people from serving in the military was lifted. Ortega was the public face and the private force behind the legislation that lifted the ban.
With the help of Joshua Block, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, he drafted a 400-page dissertation that was crucial in pushing forward the legislation. Ortega worked tirelessly for years, using all of his vacation days to meet with representatives and upper level military officials that would be able to help him.
“It’s how much suffering can I take for another person and why. The reason I do what I do is because it creates opportunities for other people that would never have been created had anyone not stayed the path.”
Ortega talked about the lengths he went to cultivate a public image that would positively contribute to getting the ban lifted. In order to show that he fit the mold that society thinks men should fit, he entered a bodybuilding competition.
For his entire military service, Ortega portrayed himself as a hyper-masculine person and connected this to his activist work.
“When the trans military ban was lifted this previous July, it was the accomplishment of 11 years of effort, 11 years of perfection, and 11 years of being this super hyper-masculine person in order to move the ball down the court,” he said.
He talked about how, in American society, men are expected to be tough, strong, and emotionless in order to properly embody the idea of masculinity. The concept and practice of hypermasculinity are toxic to both cisgender and transgender men and women. He explained how in his own experiences and others’ experiences that he has observed, either gaining or giving up masculinity is one of the hardest parts of transitioning.
During the question-and-answer part of his talk, which lasted over an hour, Ortega was asked how he deals with people who ask rude, invasive, or ignorant questions. He responded saying that in these situations, he attempts to help that person find the root of his or her ignorant beliefs.
He recounted times in his activist career when he met different hardships. From a Ku Klux Klan member yelling slurs at him in an Arkansas McDonald’s, to being talked down to and insulted by a U.S. representative, he has seen it all.
When he was asked if he is ever bothered by what people say to him and why he continues. Ortega said he does it for the people who need him to.
“It’s how much suffering can I take for another person and why,” he said. “The reason I do what I do is because it creates opportunities for other people that would never have been created had anyone not stayed the path.”
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor