Edmonds, Wash. native Ryan Karnoski spent a heady couple of days in Los Angeles recently, delivering the keynote address at Lambda Legal’s West Coast Liberty Awards on June 7 and riding with his bride Ester Matskewich in the LA Pride Parade on June 10. A photo of Donald Trump with a “Sued” sticker slapped across his eyes captures only a flash of this young trans man’s fight for LGBT equality.
Karnoski is one of nine transgender individuals and three organizations represented by Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN in a federal lawsuit filed Aug. 28, 2017, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington challenging the constitutionality of the Trump administration’s ban on open military service by transgender individuals. The state of Washington also joined as a plaintiff in September.
Karnoski’s story targets the ban on the Pentagon’s accessions policy that prohibits trans service members from retention, promotion, and basically having a military career and also prevents earnest, well-qualified trans civilians from joining the US armed forces.
In some ways, Karnoski’s story is akin to that of a young gay Arabic translator for service members in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting “the war on terrorism” in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Though his translation services are desperately needed and he is ready to go to the frontlines, the military rejects him because he is gay under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Today the war is being fought in the heads of active duty and veteran service members and their struggling families who often serve in silence.
Like the gay Arabic translator, Karnoski has the skill and desire to use his talents for the greater good. In their short biography of the now 23-year old Karnoski, the Point Foundation wrote of their scholar that he utilizes “the intersections of queerness, disability, and poverty that have shaped his identity as a proponent for advocacy and social justice.”
Karnoski was a leader in his school’s Gay Straight Alliance and volunteered with Special Olympics Washington, among other activities. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in both Social Welfare and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Washington before getting his Masters in Social Work from that university’s School of Social Work’s Child Welfare Training Advancement Program.
In a 2015 New York Times opinion piece, Karnoski wrote candidly about feeling defeated, lonely and alienated when his mother rejected his transition and his peers didn’t understand the difficult logistics “of changing your documents, accessing medical care, and navigating a gendered world as a trans person.”
Nonetheless, he wrote, “I’m still a die-hard optimist about what the future of transgender inclusion will look like for future generations, as well as my own.”
Around September 2016, he contacted military recruiters about signing up to serve as a social worker. He was told to wait until the accessions ban was lifted.
It was not a passing fantasy. “My cousin Michael was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2009 and he left behind a wonderful wife and a very young son,” Karnoski tells the Los Angeles Blade. “It was extremely challenging for my family to reconcile the grief of that loss. That really opened my eyes to how that experience has affected so many families in our community, in the civilian world and the military world. There’s a huge ripple effect that happens after a huge loss like that.”
Karnoski was in high school when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed for gays and lesbians but not trans service members. “That really influenced my line of decision-making as to whether or not I would complete an application” to West Point,” he says.
He went to the University of Washington and did not participate in ROTC. “I was actively transitioning while I was in college, which would have precluded me from commissioning as an active duty officer at that time.”
However, after Sec. of Defense Ash Carter announced that the trans ban would be lifted, “that was when I was able to actualize that goal of commissioning as an officer.” He aimed for a direct commission into the medical corps, which is different from seeking a military commission. “In the medical service corps, a person typically applies for a direct commission in a specialized field. For me, that would be working as a clinical social worker.”
But once again, Karnoski’s plan was thwarted, this time by Trump’s trans ban.
“First and foremost, I’m a social worker and I love being a social worker because it gives me a chance to work directly with individuals and their families to really help people make positive changes in their lives,” he tells the LA Blade. “My experiences with my family members who have served in the military really opened my eyes to the unique kinds of challenges that servicemembers and their families face, with respect to deployment, and combat experiences and some of the really unique challenges families can face when somebody is serving.”
Additionally, “having worked as a mental health clinician, I think it’s really important that marginalized individuals, especially members of the LGBT community, feel like the people who are providing them mental health treatment can really empathize with some of the struggles. Part of that, for me, means being out as a transgender person in the workplace so I can better serve LGBT people who want to know that their provider really understands the unique dynamics and experiences of marginalization that our community experiences.”
But, he says, “at the end of the day, who I serve is about who needs that appointment, not about their identity.”
The fight, Karnoski says, “is not about me. And I am so grateful to have role models in some of the trans service members who made the decision to come out and serve openly.”