San Antonio native Map Pesqueira, 19, has been dreaming about serving in the U.S.armed forces since he was a kid.
Growing up in Military City, USA, Pesqueira would go with his dad to watch military squads march and sing cadences during the city’s Fiesta and Fourth of July celebrations. Drawn to the unity and sense of honor portrayed by the troops, he knew he wanted to join the Army someday.
“I wanted to be a part of that,” he told the Rivard Report. “I wanted to be a part of America’s team that protects the country.”
After graduating from San Antonio’s North East School of the Arts, Pesqueira went to the University of Texas at Austin and was awarded a three-year Army ROTC scholarship, which was to have started next fall, his sophomore year. But now, his scholarship has been voided and his military aspirations put on hold.
Because Pesqueira is a transgender man who has undergone sex reassignment procedures, he is forbidden to enlist in the military under a new policy announced by President Donald Trump.
“This entire story is not just my story, it’s tons of other trans people who are going through similar situations, who are students in college relying on scholarships like this, who are going through ROTC and want to pursue a military career and now can’t,” he said.
The Department of Defense spokesperson Jessica Maxwell said in an email that Pesqueira’s “gender identity did not impact his status in the ROTC program.” Pesqueira’s transition began last year when he started hormone replacement therapy, and in March he underwent medical procedures as part of sex reassignment. He also has changed his legal name and gender marker on his IDs.
Maxwell indicated that Pesqueira’s medical history disqualified him from ROTC eligibility.
“Individuals expressing interest in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) are often given tentative offers for scholarships prior to screening against medical, academic, and security standards,” Maxwell stated. “These offers are contingent on meeting these standards. In this case, the individual did not meet the required standards and did not contract with the Army.”
The loss of the ROTC scholarship has put Pesqueira in a financial bind. He said he has incurred significant student debt from his first year at UT and can’t afford to continue there without financial aid. He’s met with university administrators to see if they could supplement his scholarship in any way, he added, but all they’ve been able to offer him are more student loans.
“I’m not holding onto any hopes in terms of the university helping me scholarship-wise,” Pesqueira said.
UT-Austin spokesman J.B. Bird said federal law prevents the university from discussing the cases of specific students but that the university offers “different avenues of help for students who face sudden changes that affect their access to a UT education.”
“In situations like this, the university works hard to understand the implications of policy changes, which are not always clear, so we can work with students on next steps as needed,” Bird said in an email. “We want all of our students to be successful and are committed to helping them make this a reality.”
Pesqueira – who is studying radio, television, and film – created a GoFundMe fundraiser this month to raise money to help pay for his education. The campaign has garnered international attention, surpassing by a few hundred dollars his goal of $27,000, which would pay for Pesqueira’s tuition and housing next school year.
“It is so humbling,” he told the Rivard Report. “I have so much gratitude for the people who don’t even know me and are rooting for me.”
Trump’s policy, which went into effect April 11, changes President Barack Obama’s 2016 policy that allowed transgender people to enlist and serve in the military under the gender with which they identify. The 2016 policy allowed transgender service members to undergo gender-transition therapy while serving.
The new policy allows trans soldiers who were diagnosed with gender dysphoria – a condition in which a person feels distress because their gender identity and biological sex do not match – before April 12 to serve under their chosen identity, as long as they have already completed their transition or have not undergone transition hormone therapy or procedures in the last 18 months. Enlistees who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria are eligible to serve but must have remained “stable” in their biological sex for three years prior to enlistment and must serve under their biological sexual identity.
But individuals such as Pesqueira who have had any sort of hormone therapy or medical transition procedure and who wish to serve under their gender identity are disqualified.
Pesqueira could apply to have his case reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board. Receiving waivers would allow him to be grandfathered in under the 2016 policy and excuse him from the part of the new policy that prohibits any transition procedures for three years.
But waiting for such waivers to be approved could take up to a year, Pesqueira said, so he’s not sure if he will apply for them.
“In order to continue with the possibility of keeping my scholarship, I have to continue with ROTC, and in order to do that I have to sacrifice taking required classes [for his degree] … as well as money on [ROTC] classes that won’t count toward my degree,” he said. “It’s a lot of betting.”
In April, he emailed his military science professor and the ROTC department chair, Lt. Col. Matthew O’Neill, to ask if, under the new policy, he’d be forbidden to serve under his gender identity. O’Neill told him he would lose his scholarship but still tried unsuccessfully to help Pesqueira find a way to keep it.
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After the Daily Texan first reported on his situation, Pesqueira has received a flurry of media attention and support from family, friends, classmates, teachers, members of the LGBTQIA community, and complete strangers.
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) and State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) also have spoken out in support of Pesqueira. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) and State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) also have reached out to him to offer support, Pesqueira said.
As he tries to determine his next steps, Pesqueira recently wrote a letter to Trump asking him to reconsider his transgender policy.
“We [transgender people] are not confused, we are not a burden, and we most certainly are not unfit to serve our country,” Pesqueira stated in the letter. “Let it be known, Mr. President, that we will not stop until this discrimination is ended.”
If, at some point in the future, the ban is lifted, Pesqueira said he’d still like to serve in the Army.
“I’m going to keep trying to get [Trump’s] attention because he messed up big time with this,” Pesqueira said.