There is an exceptionally long tradition in western culture of service being a requirement for full participation in public life. In ancient Athens, only citizens with the right to vote were allowed to serve as hoplites. In Sparta only free men could serve. During the Roman Empire, having the same legal rights as other native Romans required providing military service. This cultural narrative of "service guarantees citizenship," is still evident in modern times: in literature, film, and in civil rights movements.
Executive Order 9981, which began the process of desegregating the military, was signed by President Truman in 1947. This became one of the starting points for the civil rights movements in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1976, the service academies admitted the first female cadets and midshipmen. Over time this integration led to greater and greater roles for women in the military. Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth represents the impact of these shifts in how we see women in the military. The end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," (DADT) was a significant factor in recent gains for lesbian and gay Americans. The argument that lesbian and gay families in the military were being adversely affected by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) appears to have significantly swayed Justice Kennedy, the key swing vote on the Supreme Court.
It isn't difficult to see why military service has an effect on how we think about groups of people. Being a military officer is seen as one of the most ethical and respected professions in America.
For transgender Americans, though, full participation in public life still eludes us. Even our legal ability to safely perform necessary bodily functions is considered debatable. By every statistical measure, every survey, every poll, we are the untouchables of this society. Even people who despise us acknowledge that being transgender is a massive life penalty. In general, attempts to enact specific protections for transgender people either fail, or are met with an extreme backlash. Transgender people in the media are usually at best treated as a punch line; at worst regarded as a danger to women and children.
The level of dehumanization is such that when transgender people are attacked in hate crimes, the perpetrators are much more likely to follow all the way through to murder. However, most of the ways that lesbians and gays gained acceptance are not available to us. We don't have lovable celebrities like Ellen and George. We have very few (positive) transgender characters in the media. We are rare and often closeted, and as such very few people actually say they know a transgender person.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in paradigms about transgender people in America. However, achieving such a cultural shift the same way it was done for lesbians and gays will be slower and more difficult. While ~3.5 percent of Americans identify as LGBT, only .3 percent identify as transgender.
Changing deeply rooted narratives is extremely difficult. One of the few ways to quickly change a paradigm, though, is to present people with irrefutable evidence that invalidates one of their core assumptions. When you present two concepts that demonstrate a paradox, an individual must shift a key assumption such that the two "facts" can coexist.
Most people currently assume that there is something inherently wrong with transgender people, that there is nothing inherently likable or admirable about us. Conversely, people also generally believe that being a member of the military is inherently honorable, admirable, and likable. If we were to introduce a third fact into this logical system, namely that openly transgender people can also be in the military, something in that system of beliefs would have to change.
Having people shift their thinking such that they can see some transgender people as having admirable qualities, and as full citizens, is a game changer. It allows us to frame other transgender narratives in a way that people will continue to evolve in their understanding of us as individuals.
While the quest for open transgender military service may seem Quixotic on the surface; the time is here. Mainstream media outlets as diverse as Rolling Stone, USA Today, and Forbes have picked up on it. The New York Times Editorial Board weighed in today on the military's policies towards transgender people and Chelsea Manning, calling them, "callous and out of step with medical protocol, stated policies for transgender people in civilian federal prisons, and existing court rulings."
Implementing policies that allow transgender people to serve are not rocket science; at least 12 other countries have policies in place allowing transgender people to serve. This includes all our closest English speaking allies: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Some of them have had the policies in place for more than a decade. Israel, a country where military readiness always comes before everything else, does not consider being transgender a disqualifying condition. Study after study has shown that integrating LGBT people in the military has no measurable negative effect on capability.
The services are removing all restrictions on women in combat. The courts are now nearly unanimous in their agreement that discriminating against transgender people is unconstitutional and based on gender stereotypes. The medical and mental health communities have all taken the stated position that they oppose any form of discrimination against transgender people. Transgender people already work in the field with the military. In other cases some serve openly within their commands. We aren't as far away as you might think.
Transgender people are now lagging far behind the LGB community in nearly every measurable area. Open service, and the implicit recognition as full citizens it conveys, is our best opportunity to start closing it.