It is estimated that 13% of the American population have served in the military, and that percentage is roughly double for the transgender population. The transgender community has always had a strong presence in the military defending the rights and freedoms that so many people take for granted. Sadly, trans people have not been afforded those same freedoms and have never been allowed to serve openly, and can face discharge if the military discovers they are trans. Meanwhile, 18 other countries including The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, allow transgender people to serve openly. Why has the United States been so slow to address this issue?
Many people don’t realize that when the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was repealed in September of 2011 it had no effect on transgender people serving in the military because of outdated regulations still in place. Department of Defense Instruction 6130.03 states that “any type of gender-confirming clinical, medical, or surgical treatment is evidence of “disqualifying physical and mental conditions” which means that transgender troops in the United States cannot serve openly. The military’s ban on trans people is based on outdated medical regulations put in place before the American Psychiatric Association replaced the diagnostic term “Gender Identity Disorder” with the term “Gender Dysphoria” in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 2013, which means that being transgender is no longer considered a mental disorder.
In 2014 President Obama signed an order that federal contractors could no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but the order did not apply to the military. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates “over 134,000 American veterans are transgender, and over 15,000 trans people are serving in military today despite rules forbidding them to serve openly.” NCTE states that “restrictions on open service continue to bring an early end to the careers of qualified service members, even though those rules lack any basis in medicine or military need.”
But progress is being made thanks to the efforts of people like Sgt. Shane Ortega, a helicopter crew chief in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division and the first openly trans soldier in the United States military currently serving on active duty and who is also a leader of the Military Freedom Coalition; Kristin Beck, who retired in 2011 after a distinguished 20 year career as a Navy SEAL including seven combat deployments, and who is currently running for Congress to represent Maryland’s 5th Congressional District; and the late Jess Shipps, an eleven year veteran of the Air Force who was an active member of SPARTA, an advocacy and support group for trans members of the military.
In July the Pentagon announced plans to begin the process to lift the ban on transgender troops serving openly in the military. An early draft of the timeline has the ban being lifted in May of 2016. Pentagon officials will also consider a pilot program which would allow transgender troops under medical treatment to take a sabbatical from service, returning to the ranks after they have made their transition to the other gender.
Also under consideration is a review of the discharge status of transgender troops who have already been kicked out of the military. It’s unknown how many troops have been discharged over the years for being transgender because the Pentagon does not track them. A dishonorable discharge for having gender dysphoria could potentially have negative consequences when it comes to things such as employment opportunities and veterans benefits.
But with the Pentagon’s announcement came the expected outcry from the conservatives and haters as to whether transgender soldiers are fit to serve and can be trusted in battle. And that answer has been emphatically provided by the performance of transgender soldiers in other countries as well as several prominent studies. A March 2014 study backed by a former U.S. Surgeon General and performed by The Palm Center, concluded there is “no compelling medical reason” to continue to deny open military service to transgender Americans. In response to the question asked by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter as to whether transgender troops can serve in austere environments, The Palm Center, the independent San Francisco-based think tank which conducted two of those long-term studies, had a definitive answer when they responded: “The answer to this question, based on the experiences of 15,500 transgender troops who are already serving, as well as academic research, is an unqualified yes.”
A nine-member commission which included several retired generals and flag officers, concluded a three month study last August with the recommendation that changing the current regulations to allow transgender people to serve openly would be “neither excessively complex or burdensome.”
While getting the ban lifted to allow transgender soldiers to serve openly is a huge step forward, there is still a lot of work that remains. The most challenging part for those leading the way in this groundbreaking effort will be gaining acceptance among those they serve with, and that will take perseverance and time, but it will get done.