Queer Voices

One Year After Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal, Transgender Military Members Still Forced To Serve Secretly

Thursday marked the one year anniversary of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and to honor the occasion, President Obama tweeted "All Americans can now serve their country without hiding who they are." However, there are still service members who can be discharged for coming out of the closet. Transgender men and women are not allowed to serve in the military, and some gay-rights advocates are saying that the time has come to change this.

"The gay community has thrown the transgender community under the bus," said Aaron Belkin, the author of "How We Won: Progressive Lessons From the Repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'" Belkin allowed that not much is known about the issue apart from the fact that these troops exist, but he called the fight for transgender inclusion in the military the "next big struggle."

Kate, a transgender naval officer who was born male and asked that her name be changed to conceal her identity, said part of the reason she was drawn to the military was because she thought of it as a "hyper-masculine entity." She believed that if she served in the military it would make "this whole transition thing not an option."

Research suggests that she isn't unique in this regard. According to a recent follow-up to a 1998 study called "The Flight Into Hypermasculinity," men in the military are twice as likely to identify themselves as transgender women than their civilian counterparts. George Brown, the author of the study, wrote, "They joined the service, in their words, 'to become a real man.'"

But studies on the military and transgender men and women are rare, and in general, the lives of transgender service members are very much out of the public eye. Whereas the years-long controversy over DADT served to educate the public about the realities of life for gays and lesbians and their ability to serve in the military, the debate over transgender members has barely begun.

That's just one of several important ways in which the plight of transgender military members differs from that of their gay and lesbian comrades. Another has to do with the source of the ban. Namely, whereas the U.S. Congress passed DADT, there is no law against transgender troops serving, there is only a policy enacted by the military. Advocates say the surest path to reform would be to get the military to change its own stance, but that path could be long.

One advocate estimated that it could be more than a decade before the military changes its policy on transgender troops. Some advocates are reluctant to raise awareness of the issue for fear that that Congress could step in and impose a ban where none existed before. During the debate over DADT, some conservative congress members suggested this was a fight they'd want to take on. Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr. (R-Calif.) warned that the repeal of DADT could "open up the military to transgenders, to hermaphrodites, to gays and lesbians."

The military's ban on transgender members stems in part from the idea that such people are mentally ill, and thus, unfit to serve. As spokeswoman for the Department of Defense Eileen M. Lainez, put it: "DoD regulations don't allow transgender individuals to serve in the military, based upon medical standards for military service."

Until recently, the term of choice among psychiatrists was "gender identify disorder." In July, the American Psychiatric Association announced that it planned to replace this diagnosis with "gender dysphoria," signaling a shift from the belief that all transgender people suffer from an illness to the stance that some transgender people have a condition that can be cured. When the APA stopped defining homosexuality as a mental illness in 1973, it was seen as a huge milestone in the fight for gay equality, and it arguably cleared the way for the repeal of DADT nearly four decades later.

Kate said that the military's ban means that she lives a double life. At work, she is careful to always "present" as a man named Kevin, her birth name. As soon as she gets home for the day, she drops that facade.

She wouldn't say whether she had started hormone treatments yet, but she is seeing a therapist. Asked whether she has considered leaving the military, she replied, "Oh yes, but unless I'm found out or something happens, I plan on getting out when my contract expires." "

Several of America's allies allow transgender people to serve in their armed forces, among them Canada, the U.K., Australia and Israel.

While many transgender people are happy about the repeal of DADT, some say the recent celebrations of the repeal's one-year anniversary have left them a little cold. Brynn Tannehill, a former Navy lieutenant commander and pilot, left the armed service in part because she no longer wanted to live as a man and now blogs for Outserve, one of the few organizations that works with transgender troops. She recently wrote a blog post describing her reaction to Rep. Tammy Baldwin's (D-Wis.) speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which Baldwin praised Barack Obama for repealing DADT "so that no American ever again has to lie about who they are in order to serve the country we love.”

"I felt a pang, and sighed," Tannehill wrote. "If only it were true."

Correction: This article originally referred to the DSM's definition as "transgender identity disorder." It is actually "gender identity disorder."

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