Meet Bryce Celotto, an educator, U.S. military veteran, and third-generation descendant of Italian immigrants. His great grandparents immigrated from Naples, Italy, passing through Ellis Island on their way to Philadelphia, where they settled their family, including Bryce’s grandfather. Bryce grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and currently lives in Oakland, California.
Bryce remembers his grandfather’s stories of serving in the Marine Corps. This had a big impact on him growing up, and his decision to join the military himself as a teenager. “I think for my grandpa, he really enjoyed being a Marine, and was very proud of his service. He rose to the rank of platoon sergeant, which was a pretty high rank, and he served all around the South Pacific. His stories definitely influenced me in wanting to join the military. After he passed away, I made a promise to myself, even though I was only 12 years old. I told myself I would join the military to carry on the family name. I was always really close to my grandfather. I never really knew my real dad, and in a lot of ways my grandpa was my dad.”
When Bryce enlisted in the military, there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place. “When I enlisted, I had to sign a piece of paper saying I wouldn’t engage in homosexual conduct, even though I identified as LGBT and had a girlfriend at the time. I had to lie about all of that. Then later, a couple years after I had enlisted, that was when I realized more about my gender, and decided to come out as transgender. Which was what ultimately ended my military career early.”
Bryce had envisioned spending his career in the military, but he was also open about his identity. “After four and a half years, I left the military because I was transgender. At the time, you could not be transgender and serve in the military. Even though it was cut short, I mostly had a great experience. I met a lot of great people. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of it, similar to my grandfather. I loved having new experiences, and even the training, though it was difficult at that time. I have mostly very positive memories, despite the challenges, being transgender.”
His immigrant heritage also influenced Bryce’s decision to serve. “I think a lot of people whose parents have immigrated here, or grandparents, great grandparents, you feel a sense of duty. If you’re my age, it’s probably common your grandparent served in World War II. Once you’ve been here for awhile, you have a sense of patriotism and a common feeling about America. I was always very patriotic. I know for my grandpa, being a child of immigrants influenced his decision to join the military. His parents being immigrants, and being able to build a life here.”
Bryce knows all about America’s historical treatment of marginalized populations, including immigrants, but he has always felt a strong sense of patriotism. “I’m well-versed in the history of America, and how America has historically oppressed everything that I am. And then with my family, I have an immigrant identity, too. There’s a James Baldwin quote, ‘I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.’ It’s Baldwin saying yes, I’m a patriot and I love America, and I recognize the flaws of America. That’s how I am. For me, joining the military was a part of that patriotism. I still feel a sense of duty towards the United States, despite those flaws.”