Sitting in the House chamber for President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday will be a soldier the president believes has no right to serve this country.
Staff Sergeant Patricia King enlisted right after graduating from Cape Cod Tech, and has been deployed to Afghanistan three times. She thinks of her years in the Army as a blessing. She is also a transgender woman.
Last June, Trump declared that King and other transgender people could not serve in any capacity in the US military, dismissing them as a disruptive force. Courts have blocked his order for now, but the future remains uncertain.
“I have served for almost 19 years,” she said. “And all of a sudden, it is all hanging in the balance.”
Trump’s intolerance is but the latest obstacle King, 37, has faced. Growing up in Marstons Mills, she knew she was different. She hated puberty, and the masculine characteristics that came with it — the changing body that felt entirely foreign. But this was long before kids had words to describe those feelings. There was no way to talk about it with her parents, open and loving as they were.
She knows it sounds strange, but she joined the military to find herself. There, she found a home and a fulfilling career. But it wasn’t until the end of her last deployment in 2013 that she realized who she really was, she said. By then, she had been married and had two sons, now 10 and 11. She came out to her parents first, then to her ex-wife and sons, and they embraced her. It was like parachuting out of an airplane — no going back.
“You’re trying to work up the courage to make that leap, and once you do, gravity does the rest,” said this veteran of many jumps. “Their love was the gravity that kept pulling me along.”
The pre-Trump ban on transgender people in the military was still in effect. Regulations required that she still adhere to the dress code for men, even though she was undergoing hormone therapy and her body was changing. But supervisors were supportive, and change was coming: In June 2016, the Defense Department lifted the ban.
“I was elated,” she said.
A year later, via Twitter, the president threatened to snatch it all away. But since judges put the brakes on Trump’s peremptory decree, King went ahead with gender reassignment surgery in November. She said she was the first service member whose surgery was paid for by the military.
She scoffs at the notion that others will rush to enlist for the same benefits.
“There are much easier ways to get surgery covered than enlisting in the military, [facing] the possibility of deployment, and dealing with the stigma of being a transgender service member,” said King, who is stationed at Fort Lewis, in Washington state. “Every one of us who raises our right hand is prepared to give everything in the defense of our country.”
US Representative Joe Kennedy III invited King to the speech as his guest, in the hopes of reminding the president, and others, of that.
“I want her to be there as a real person, and the face of an inhumane policy,” he said.
Kennedy, chairman of the Transgender Equality Task Force in Congress, helped nudge the military to authorize King’s surgery. He’s appalled at what Trump is saying to soldiers like her: that their loyal service counts for nothing.
“I can’t imagine what that must feel like,” Kennedy said.
It turns out that, while King will be in the chamber, Kennedy will not. He’ll be in Fall River, giving the Democrats’ rebuttal to Trump’s speech. In an interview, Kennedy said one theme he might hammer is the danger of the Trumpian notion that “in order for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose.”
“I don’t believe that is reflective of our country at its best, or of the values Americans hold,” he added.
Back in the Capitol, his guest will sit as a testament to those values, and a reminder of the many who will be harmed if we abandon them.Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.