An Army Vet's Unexpected Meeting with Biden After Sending Thank-You Letter for Ending Trans Ban
Georgia Army veteran Preston Lee got quite the surprise when, in response to a letter he sent to Joe Biden, he received a White House voicemail with a request: The president wanted to meet.
The message came after Lee's February note to Biden thanking him for lifting former President Donald Trump's 2018 prohibition on transgender people in the military.
The ban "rolled out just a few months after I came out as trans," Lee, 36, tells PEOPLE. "So I was really relieved when Biden won. It was the first election I ever voted in and I wrote him the letter to say that lifting the ban helped me dream again."
Lee says his letter detailed how thankful he was that he no longer felt "erased" once Biden was in office and signed the order overturning the ban while declaring that "all Americans who are qualified to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States should be able to serve."
"I wanted to say thank you for lifting that ban, because I served in the military and the Army really meant something to me," Lee says of his letter to the president. "When I put on that uniform … it meant something. And I was ashamed the prior four years, because the ban suggested that my service meant diddly squat."
Lee tells PEOPLE he expected to get a generic White House letter in response to his own.
Instead, he got a voicemail from a Biden aide earlier this year saying they found his letter to be "very powerful" and asking to arrange an in-person meeting with the president. (The anecdote was spotlighted in a recent Washington Post article about Biden's daily routine.)
Their meeting took place backstage at Emory University in Atlanta in March after remarks were delivered by both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Calling the meeting an "amazing experience," Lee tells PEOPLE now that it did leave him a little tongue-tied.
"I had a list of things I wanted to say to him in person — 'Thank you for your son's service,' stuff like that — but the only thing that could come out of my mouth was to introduce myself," he says.
Biden recognized the veteran immediately, saying, "I know who you are! You wrote a letter! How you doin' pal?"
Lee's spouse, who is nonbinary, spoke to Harris as he chatted with Biden.
They later recounted the meeting on Instagram, writing that "I've been having a hard time (as I'm sure many of us are) and this was such an uplifting moment to directly see their value of transgender humans in person."
"Thank you @prestonuptous for writing the letter," Lee's spouse wrote. "You're a pretty cool partner. I like doing life with you."
The photo Lee took with Biden hangs in his home while the memory, he says, will stay with him.
"It made me feel like I was seen."