Washington, DC (written by Andrew Tilghman/Military Times) -- She's a lesbian, and almost everyone in her unit knows it.
She wears her hair cropped short and has a distinctly boyish appearance.
And she's becoming manlier by the day, now that she's started taking male hormones.
Call her Keith. That's the name this 26-year-old specialist, now deployed to Afghanistan, plans to take when she completes a transition begun several months ago when she started giving herself testosterone injections every other week, under the direction of a civilian doctor who specializes in gender changes.
"It's going well. My voice is deeper, I'm getting more muscle. I feel more energy. I feel more like myself," she told Military Times in a recent interview via Skype from her containerized housing unit in Afghanistan.
Keith declined to be identified by her real name because under military policy, troops diagnosed with "gender identity disorder" are deemed medically unfit for service and face administrative separation.
The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in September 2011 cleared the way for gay troops to serve openly but did not address transgender individuals, defined as people who don't identify with their birth gender.
No one knows precisely how many transgender troops there may be in the force. Based on broad studies that are themselves imprecise, advocates estimate there may be as many as 5,000 people in the active and reserve components who will face some form of gender identity problem during their lifetimes, said Sue Fulton, a spokeswoman for OutServe, an organization of gay, bisexual and transgender service members.
However, it's likely that very few of those are taking any medical steps toward sex change, Fulton said.
Leaving for Afghanistan, Keith packed a five-month supply of hormones. The medicine cost about $600.
"It's pretty straightforward. When I get home, the doc will be more involved, making sure my (hormone) levels stay where they need to be," Keith said, adding that deployment is a good time to start taking hormones because she is able to spend a lot of off-duty time at the gym.
"I work out about every day, so the body definition is looking good," the soldier said. "While deployed, I'm able to work out a lot more than I probably would at home."
Legally married to a woman for the past two years, Keith says her wife shared in her decision to start taking male hormones.
"It's something I had always thought about," Keith said. "My wife and I talked about it, and I knew I had her support, so I said, 'I'm going to do this.'"
In a masculine environment
Brynn Tannehill, a 1997 Naval Academy graduate and transgender woman formerly known as Bryan, said military life may be a little easier for someone like Keith, a woman who wants to become a man, than the other way around.
"I think the military is far more accepting of a woman who chooses to appear masculine," Tannehill said in an interview. "Saying the military prefers masculine qualities to feminine ones is like saying the sky's blue."
A former helicopter pilot, Tannehill spent 10 years on active duty and recalls feeling ill at ease in some military settings.
"It was always in the back of my mind: 'How am I walking? How am I talking? How am I holding my hands? How am I gesturing?' I was always very self-conscious,' " she said.
After Tannehill left the Navy, she went through the two-year procedures to change her gender. Her wife, who had already borne their three children, was supportive of the change. The couple is still married and lives with their children in Ohio, where Tannehill works as a contractor at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Service members are required to notify their commands about any significant change in their medical conditions.
Pentagon officials declined to respond to a request for comment by press time. But Defense Department regulations list gender identity disorder as one of a number of medical conditions that, while not considered disabilities, may "interfere with assignment to or performance of duty" and are grounds for administrative discharge.
The list also includes such conditions as seasickness, sleepwalking, bedwetting, dyslexia and other learning disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity and severe allergies.
David McKean, a lawyer with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides free legal advice to gay, bisexual and transgender troops, said SLDN gets calls from several hundred troops each year, about 10 percent of whom identify as transgender.
He and others say the military's policy on transgender troops is unfair, equivalent to the defunct "don't ask, don't tell" rules that were abolished last year.
Fitness to serve "shouldn't be based on gender identification," he said. The only criteria should be "whether or not someone can do the job."
Identity vs. military career
For now, Keith's personal and professional lives are not fully compatible. She's considering whether to re-enlist and hopes to apply for a promotion to sergeant, but she also wants to become a man.
"Right now, I'm trying to figure out how fast I want to transition and where I see myself in the next six years. I do plan on having the surgeries. Just a matter of when. It's hard to do while in (the Army)."
Keith says she will probably re-enlist at least once.
"I love my job, and I have a wife and family who supports me, so why not?" she said. "I love knowing that because of what I am doing, my family is at home sleeping well and safe."