Open Trans Military Service -- The Final Barrier to Full Inclusion Falls

The next time a trans person is rejected for employment, she needs to quote Sue Fulton, the first openly lesbian chair of the U.S. Military Academy Board of Visitors:

"We have trans Marines defending our country. What's your excuse?"

Last Monday, July 13, the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, announced that the Pentagon's regulations banning open trans military service are outdated, and ordered a six month review which will end with the inclusion of trans servicemembers alongside their gay, lesbian and bisexual compatriots. The six-month review gives the Pentagon time to handle the medical, administrative and legal issues that will revise the regulations to apply fairly to trans persons. When the review is complete, the last impediment to a group of Americans willing to enlist or be commissioned in the armed forces will be gone, and the current 15,500 servicemembers serving in the closet will be able to come out.

As the Secretary said:

We have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- real, patriotic Americans -- who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that's contrary to our value of service and individual merit. The Defense Department's current regulations regarding transgender service members are outdated and are causing uncertainty that distracts commanders from our core missions.

Brynn Tannehill, Advocacy Director of SPARTA (Service Members, Partners, Allies, for Respect and Tolerance for All), said:

This is an important step towards transgender service members being treated equally with other members of the armed forces. It brings the DoD closer to where the rest of the federal government is on the issue. I'm looking forward to finishing my career in the reserves, and doing so with dignity and honor.

The review group announced by the Secretary will be led by Brad Carson, the acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, and friend of the trans military community. Six months may seem like a long time, but the new regulations need to deal with implementing name and gender changes, as well as dealing with all the medical considerations related to transition and post-transition medical issues. As The New York Times noted in its editorial praising the decision:

None of this should be hard to carry out. Several of America's closest allies have seamlessly integrated openly transgender troops in their militaries. Any doubts about their ability to serve should have been put to rest by the exemplary records of those who have begun transitioning publicly in recent months. Their powerful stories commanded the attention of senior leaders at the Pentagon.

So how did this come about, four years after gay men and lesbians began serving openly following the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Some people had no idea that trans persons weren't included in the repeal, and other trans persons were infuriated that they weren't. Some trans persons wanted nothing to do with trans servicemembers, such as Dean Spade of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Others were more concerned with the bread and butter issues that affect their civilian lives.

Looking back, I need to remind people that many trans persons stood with our gay brothers and sisters to obtain open service for them when we knew we could not yet be included. There were many, including Allyson Robinson and Brynn Tannehill, but the person I recall making the biggest impact was Autumn Sandeen, who joined five gay servicemembers in chaining themselves to the White House gates during the GetEqual protest in 2010, and who has continued her advocacy to this day.

Those efforts led to the development of friendships and powerful relationships, and laid the groundwork for the trans effort three years later. But the issue which was fundamental to open trans military service was the declassification of being trans as a mental illness. The image of Corporal Klinger hovered over the Pentagon, until that fundamental change occurred in the DSM 5 revision of December 2012. That effort was thanks to the decade-long leadership of Kelley Winters and others. No longer could anyone outside the Pentagon, nor anyone within, make a serious argument that the 15,500 trans persons serving in the military were mentally ill and, therefore, unqualified.

That number -- 15,500 -- was derived from research led by the Palm Center, led by Aaron Belkin, in association with the Williams Institute. The Palm Center, with the support of a major donation contributed by Colonel Jennifer Pritzker after her transition, published a nonpartisan report, the "Report of the Planning Commission on Transgender Military Service," to help the United States join its 18 allied nations in providing full inclusion. The report was led by two co-chairs: Major General Gale S. Pollock, former Acting Army Surgeon General, and Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a long-time trans legal advocate. Other committee members included trans advocates Paula Neira, a former Navy Lieutenant. and Kylar Broadus, of the National LGBTQ Task Force.

This blueprint served as a guide for the Pentagon, and the team led by SPARTA pushed forward. I feel it's important to emphasize that this effort was primarily a trans effort, comprised of a small group of dedicated military and former military professionals who ran this like a military campaign, with the assistance of staunch cis allies, both gay and straight. Foremost among them was Sue Fulton, board chair of SPARTA, the first lesbian chair of the U.S. Military Academy Board of Visitors, and founding board member of both Outserve and KnightsOut. One couldn't ask for a better friend and ally than Sue Fulton, and her leadership was indispensable.

The team working inside the Pentagon was led by Allyson Robinson, SPARTA's Director of Policy, who, as the nation's first trans executive director of a national LGBT organization, had served as Executive Director of Outserve-SLDN. She was joined by Brynn Tannehill as Director of Advocacy, legal experts Paula Neira and Bridget Wilson, and media expert Fiona Dawson who produced the remarkable transmilitary video documentary project, Transgender, At War and In Love, with servicemembers Logan Ireland and Laila Villanueva and which eventually appeared in The New York Times. Landon Wilson was profiled on CBS News after being discharged from the Navy for being trans. Army Captain Jacob Eleazer and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld of the AMA Board of Trustees worked the medical angles post-DSM revision. Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), along with Houston's Lou Weaver, provided logistical support in bringing trans military personnel together, no small thing since the NCTE's membership was traditionally opposed to supporting the military. Even HRC contributed, by working the Congressional Armed Services Committees to prevent any meddling from the Republican-controlled body across the Potomac. I also want to mention Chief Warrant Officer Tania Dunbar, instrumental in founding SPARTA after the collapse of OutServe-SLDN, who tragically died in an accident just several days ago.

I don't want to leave out the many within the Pentagon, starting with Eric Fanning, then Chief of Staff to Secretary Carter, and Amanda Simpson, Executive Director of the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives, who assisted this effort, and others who prefer to remain anonymous. Or to forget the first organized efforts on behalf of trans veterans, led by Monica Helms, founder of the Transgender Americans Veterans Association (TAVA).

The lessons for me in this successful effort are that trans persons are quite capable of taking care of themselves, and when given the right tools, sufficient financial support and a network of supportive allies, are capable of mounting a mission to bring about real equality.

A more general lesson is that there are times, as was evident with the slew of marriage lawsuits brought all over the country, when targeted, determined efforts run by small teams are more productive than dependence on the older model of large, well-funded, general service advocacy organizations. Being relatively independent of membership or donor money allows a freedom of action which is oftentimes necessary to get the job done.