© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Doctor Who Advocated For Transgender Military Rights Now Works To Make Wisconsin More Inclusive

Medical College of Wisconsin
Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld is famously known for asking then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter about his stance on trans people serving in the military. Now, he is working to make Wisconsin's health care systems more inclusive.

In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made a historic announcement that transgender people to would be allowed to serve openly in the military. After taking office, President Donald Trump tried to reinstate the ban and eventually succeeded after several legal challenges. Then on Jan. 26, 2021 President Joe Biden reversed the Trump-era decision and will allow transgender people to again serve openly in all branches of the military.

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld says he “couldn’t be happier” that Biden reversed the ban. Ehrenfeld is the director of the Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin Endowment and senior associate dean at the Medical College of Wisconsin School of Medicine.

He also made international news in 2015 when he asked then-Secretary Carter what his stance on allowing transgender people to openly serve in the military was during a visit to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Ehrenfeld was stationed at the time as a U.S. Navy Reserve medic.

Carter ended his answer with: “I don't think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.” 

That question and Secretary Carter's answer was the first major step towards repealing the ban. Ehrenfeld says he decided to ask that question because of a fellow servicemember who is transgender but could not come out and risk being discharged.

“I was seated next to this person [who] had no voice, had no opportunity to stand up and asking about serving as a trans person because it would have outed him and then the end of his deployment and probably career,” he says. “I remember turning to Logan and saying, 'You know if you could get up and ask the secretary any question, what would it be?'”

Ehrenfeld says the day in 2016 when the Obama administration announced they would be lifting the trans military ban was an emotional one and that he was excited to see the end of a policy that had ended so many military careers.

Which is why when the Trump administration reversed that decision, he says he understood that simply reinstating the policy would not undo the harm that the new ban created.

“It’s hard to turn the largest employer in the world, and that’s the U.S. military, 3.2 million people I think, on a dime. I’m optimistic that [Biden’s reinstatement] will be an important and lasting step forward,” he says. “I think that there was a pretty clear consensus among the professional military leadership that the reinstatement of the ban was a political decision, not one that was based in science or fact.”

Ehrenfeld says that this policy is not only crucial for the 15,000 trans service members currently in the U.S. military but that the largest employer in the entire world is modeling inclusivity for other organizations.

Now, in his work at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Advancing a Healthier Wisconsin, Ehrenfeld is trying to make the medical field a more inclusive space.

“There still is a huge training gap and, you know, the vast majority of the health care workforce went through medical school, nursing school, whatever school they went through, without really getting trained on issues around LGB or T care,” he says.

Ehrenfeld says that means many Wisconsinites have to travel long distances just to get the correct care they need. “There are roughly 20,000 transgender individuals living in Wisconsin and there’s only one comprehensive, multidisciplinary clinic anywhere in the state,” he notes. 

When Ehrenfeld first came to Wisconsin to work for the Medical College of Wisconsin, he says he spent a lot of time traveling to different counties to meet with different communities and look for new partnership opportunities to improve healthcare statewide. However, with those types of outreach on hold due to the coronavirus, he says "it's still a learning process to hear from folks around the state where we can partner, where we can have an impact, and where we can deploy our resources."

Listen to the full conversation between Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski and Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld.

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.