Most weekday mornings, after feeding the chickens, goat and cows, Nicolas Talbott drives through the rolling hills of Columbiana County in eastern Ohio to one of the schools where he is a substitute teacher. It was a busy winter — lots of teachers out with the flu. And while Talbott enjoys teaching, he hopes to move on soon, to a career in the U.S. Air Force working on global security.
"I want to serve my country, I want to serve the people in this country and I want to serve the Constitution of the United States," Talbott says, "no matter who is in office in our government."
But Talbott, a 24-year-old transgender Kent State graduate, is facing a roadblock from the man in the nation's highest office. President Trump wants to effectively ban transgender individuals from serving in the armed forces. For now, the virtual ban is on hold while four federal lawsuits proceed. Talbott is a plaintiff in one of those suits.
"There's nothing about being transgender that makes you any less capable than anybody else of military service," says Talbott.
Federal courts ruled late last year that the Trump administration must allow Talbott and other potential recruits to enlist while the lawsuits proceed. Talbott spoke to several recruiters more than a year ago. Several seemed unsure about working with him. Then he called an Air Force recruiter and the two clicked. That recruiter is the main reason Talbott is trying to enlist in the Air National Guard.
"He was the one who said, 'Wow, this is awesome. I really want to learn about this so that I can help other folks in the future,' " Talbott says, recalling that first conversation. "That's the kind of attitude, that's what I would expect from the military, that attitude of hey, this is a new challenge for me, let's face it head-on."
Talbott has filed piles of documents including letters from a counselor and doctors that show his gender transition has been stable for at least 18 consecutive months. That's one of the requirements the military is using when processing current applicants who are transgender.
"I've been seeing the same doctor for about five years now — I definitely made that 18 months," Talbott says.
Talbott studies and works out daily while he waits to be called in for a physical exam and the entry vocational aptitude test. He says he can hit the minimum male boot camp standards for running, pushups and situps. The testosterone Talbott takes is helping him close differences in muscle mass and bone density as compared with non-trans men. He is aiming for the top performance tier.
"That's what military readiness is really about. Are you able to put on that uniform and do your job to the best of your ability every day?" says Talbott. "That's what it's about. It's not about what you look like under that uniform."
Recommendations signed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and presented to President Trump disagree.
"The Department of Defense concludes that there are substantial risks associated with allowing the accession and retention of individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria and require, or have already undertaken, a course of treatment to change their gender," wrote Mattis in a memorandum dated Feb. 22. He goes on to say that including service members who are or have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the medical condition for someone who transitions, "could undermine readiness, disrupt unit cohesion, and impose an unreasonable burden on the military that is not conducive to military effectiveness and lethality."
Some other transgender men and women are putting off or abandoning efforts to join the military as the political and legal fights drag on.
Both Mattis and a Pentagon spokeswoman have declined further comment about those recommendations because they are part of pending litigation. To Talbott's buddy James Napierkowski, 22, that sounds like the same claim once used to keep women and openly gay service members out.
"Both times it's proved to be not disruptive at all and only bring in more qualified people into the military who want to help and can help," says Napierkowski, a senior airman with the Ohio National Guard.
Napierkowski, speaking for himself, says the military will need to bring transgender troops into service slowly so that active service members can get to know men and women like Talbott.
"But once [current troops] realize that [transgender service members] are just people like everyone else, it'll be just fine and be very beneficial," Napierkowski says.
Talbott says he realizes he will be under a spotlight, answering lots of questions about being transgender.
"There are going to be situations where it's going to very obvious that I'm trans, you know, in the showers and that sort of thing," Talbott says. But he says he focuses on his "purpose" — "to put on my uniform and do my job."
The two friends, roughly the same medium height and lean-muscled build, both with short, cropped hair, trade tips on running and video games. When Talbott gets discouraged, Napierkowski stops by to offer a pep talk.
"Till things get sorted out, one way or another, just keep pushing and eventually you'll break through, hopefully," says Napierkowski, in between bites of doughnuts on a Sunday afternoon.
"Until then I'm just going to keep living vicariously through you," Talbott says, laughing.
"I'll take lots of pictures and videos," Napierkowski says.
Talbott says he has broad support from other friends in the military, former teachers and his family. His grandmother Rhoda Dineen may be Talbott's biggest fan. Her three brothers served. Dineen, 71, can't understand why Trump doesn't want her grandson.
"And he's wasting time because eventually it will be," Dineen says, "so why not let the good guys in while they're young."
Jennifer Levi, who is arguing Talbott's case on behalf of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, says she understands the caution but believes in the strength of the case against the ban.
"The preliminary decisions that have been issued now in four cases really support that confidence," Levi says.
More motions are due Wednesday in Talbott's case, before the federal district court in central California.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
A young transgender man from rural Ohio is challenging President Trump's attempt to keep him out of the military. While his case and three others move through the courts, Nicolas Talbott studies for his armed forces entry exam, works to get in shape for boot camp and keeps up with chores on his family's farm. Martha Bebinger of member station WBUR met Talbott as he fed some chickens.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKENS CLUCKING)
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Red, brown and speckled hens peck at early spring grass while they wait for Nick Talbott to dish out something more substantial inside the barn.
NICOLAS TALBOTT: Oh, hello.
BEBINGER: On weekdays after the chickens, goat and cows are all set, the 24-year-old Kent State grad heads through rolling hills to one of the schools where he's an all-grade substitute teacher. This being a Sunday, Talbott heads back into the farmhouse where he sinks into the couch and his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude test study guide.
TALBOTT: It's a little bit of everything - general science, math, word knowledge, paragraph comprehension.
BEBINGER: Talbott's scores on this entry-level test will help determine whether he makes the cut for one of his dream jobs - security forces or intelligence. Courts have ordered the military to enlist openly transgender recruits while four lawsuits challenging President Trump's ban proceed, so Talbott submitted intake forms and his medical records.
TALBOTT: You know, of course being trans, they wanted paperwork related to that as well.
BEBINGER: Letters from a counselor and doctors stating that Talbott has been stable in his gender identity for at least 18 months and does not need any additional surgery.
TALBOTT: I've been seeing the same doctor for about five years now, so I definitely made that 18 months.
BEBINGER: His dog Lily, who rules the farm, announces the arrival of Talbott's buddy James Napierkowski, who's already in the Ohio National Guard.
TALBOTT: So how have you been, man?
JAMES NAPIERKOWSKI: Good, man. How are you?
TALBOTT: Great to see you.
BEBINGER: The two friends, roughly the same medium height and lean muscle build, both with short, cropped hair, trade tips on running, video games and Talbott's future in the military. He started the application process 17 months ago and has put off grad school. The wait with policy changes and court battles is hard. Napierkowski offers pep talks.
NAPIERKOWSKI: Till things get sorted out one way or another, just keep pushing, and eventually you'll break through hopefully.
BEBINGER: Napierkowski, who is 22 and not trans, has heard the claim that transgender troops would be a disruption. President Trump tweeted that argument last year. His press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated it later that day.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: And based on consultation that he's had with his national security team, came to the conclusion that it erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.
BEBINGER: Pentagon recommendations released in March which would effectively ban transgender troops make the same argument. To Napierkowski, that sounds like the claim once used to keep women and openly gay service members out.
NAPIERKOWSKI: Both times, it's proved to not be disruptive at all and only bring in more qualified people into the military who just want to help and can help.
TALBOTT: So we want to take a right at the stop sign.
BEBINGER: Talbott drives to a gym most days to prepare for the rigor of boot camp.
TALBOTT: I want to pass, you know, some of the higher standards for honor graduate and, you know, really just blow things out of the water.
BEBINGER: Talbott says he realizes he'll be under a spotlight, answering lots of questions about being transgender.
TALBOTT: There are going to be situations where it's going to be very obvious that I'm trans - in the showers and that sort of thing. But my purpose is to put on that uniform and do my job and serve my country. That's what it's all about. It's not about what you look like under that uniform.
BEBINGER: Talbott shopped around until he found a recruiter who was open to his service. That recruiter happened to be with the Air National Guard, so that's where Talbott is enlisting.
TALBOTT: You know, he was the one who said, wow, this is awesome; I've never done this before. And that's the kind of attitude that I would really expect from the military.
BEBINGER: Talbott's pal Napierkowski says having openly trans troops will be new and takes some getting used to.
NAPIERKOWSKI: I think once they realize, like, they're just people like everyone else, it'll be just fine and, like, be very beneficial.
BEBINGER: That's what Talbott wants - for the military to give him a chance.
TALBOTT: I want to serve my country. I want to serve the people in this country. And I want to serve the Constitution of the United States no matter who is in office in our government.
BEBINGER: More motions in Talbott's case are due in federal court tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Gavers, Ohio.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BROOK'S "GARUDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.