Editors' note: TAVA president and frequent guest blogger Monica Helms describes the history and upcoming efforts for collaboration between transgender servicemembers and SLDN.
The year was 1993. Clinton was president. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people felt they finally had a friend in the White House. And, even though transgender people officially started the gay movement at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, they only began finding their voices in the equal rights movement in the early 1990's. They had very little visibility and vertically no credibility. We weren't on anyone's radar.
In that year, President Clinton wanted to fulfill a promise by making the US military safe for people, regardless of their sexual orientation. But it didn't turn out the way people wanted. The now infamous Don't Ask, Don't Tell law came into affect and it did not protect people in the military based on their sexual orientation, if that orientation was something other than straight. The law gave commanders a chance to hunt down gay, lesbian and bisexual service member in order to weed them out. Transgender military people didn't ask to be included, but included they were.
Shortly after that, a new LGB organization, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN,) formed for the express purpose of legally helping military personnel who have been targeted under DADT. They did a great job and helped thousands, but if a transgender person came to them, they could not help because they had no one who had any knowledge about their issue. Yet, trans people were targeted because the military thought they were gay.
My first experience with dealing with SLDN was back in 1999 when Private Barry Winchell was murdered at Ft. Campbell, KY. I just happen to catch a news story and when they showed Calpernia Addams, they called her Winchell's "Drag Queen lover." Even before Calpernia had any surgeries, one could easily tell she was a transsexual woman.
I called the club where Calpernia worked, but she had to call me back later. In our conversation, it came to light that the SLDN leaders at that time wanted to portray her as a "gay man" so they could push the problems with DADT. She told me that Barry was attracted to her femininity and not anything else about her. Barry Winchell was killed because he was dating a trans woman, but that somehow made him "gay" in the eyes of the other soldiers and in the eyes of SLDN back then.
In January 2003, the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) was formed to address the problems facing transgender veterans in the VA, but to also do what we could to help transgender service members who had problems while serving. We quickly came out saying that we opposed Don't Ask, Don't Tell to show our support for our gay, lesbian and bisexual brothers and sisters in arms. We had also heard stories of trans people being targeted under the law, so opposing it made sense as far as our mission was concerned.
After a short time, TAVA started getting requests to provide legal help because some trans services members were being targeted under DADT. The new people in charge of SLDN were more supportive, but pointed out that they still had no person in their ranks to take on this issue, even though these trans service members were accused of being gay. Later that changed when SLDN hired a transgender lawyer who not only began helping trans service members, but educated SLDN on the issues.
As time went on, the reasons for DADT lost all of their logic. Prominent high-ranking military people publicly came out opposing it, while polls showed Americans overwhelmingly supported its repeal. All of Europe allowed their LGB people to serve openly and even some allowed trans people to serve openly. The days of DADT were numbered.
SLDN saw that the conversation about DADT had ramped up tremendously and a new law was about to be introduced, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA) that was designed to repeal DADT. The law only had the words "sexual orientation" because that was the only words DADT used. SLDN realized they needed to speak to the transgender community to ensure them that the way the law was written was specifically to repeal DADT and not to exclude transgender people on purpose. Adding the words "gender expression and gender identity" into MREA made no sense and would confuse Congress people.
In 2006, SLDN, TAVA and National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) had a conversation about this very issue. SLDN didn't want to get angry calls and E-mails from transgender people when MREA was introduced and it only had the words "sexual orientation" in it. They wanted us to assure transgender people that the reason we were not mentioned in MREA was because DADT had nothing to do with "gender identity or gender expression."
In theory, they were correct about this, but in practice, the military continued targeting transgender people for being gay. In that meeting, I agreed to go along with SLDN's strategy, as did NCTE, because their logic was that if passed, MREA would help transgender people as well. The one person in the meeting who didn't want us to go along with this was TAVA's Vice President, Angela Brightfeather. She felt something was wrong but couldn't put her finger on it. She, like the rest of us, knew transgender people had been targeted under DADT, but we had no proof.
All of SLDN's Action Alerts and press releases stated that "gay, lesbian and bisexual service members are being adversely affected by DADT." They knew that transgender service members were being affected. TAVA knew it, too, but we kept our mouths shut so as not to rock the boat. Little did we know what the future held for us.
Fast forward to 2008 and TAVA began their Transgender Veterans Survey that lasted until May 1, 2008. The raw data from the survey made it absolutely clear that transgender people were being targeted just as much as LGB service members, with trans men being questioned about their sexual orientation at twice the rate as trans women. At that point, TAVA's stance changed on inclusion in MREA.
When Memorial Day came up, several people wrote articles on how much DADT has hurt our country's readiness by discharging many critical people needed in a time of war. The Department of Defense raised the age limit to the middle 40s. Criminals of all kinds were allowed to serve. People who could not get along socially and those with low aptitude scores were accepted, as long as they were straight. All the articles kept saying, DADT affects gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. I don't know how many times I responded to these articles using the data from the survey, but no one listened.
That all changed when the most prestigious institution in the country, The Palm Center, published the White Paper Report on the Transgender Veterans Survey. They lent credibility to our claims that transgender people can no longer be left out of the DADT discussion.
Here's what The Palm Center wrote in the "Research Implications and Recommendations" section at the end of the White Paper Report:
Survey responses make clear that transgender service members are negatively affected by the current DADT policy, even though the policy does not directly apply to them. Transgender and other service members expressing non-traditional gender identities are often perceived as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, thus increasing the likelihood that they will be investigated under DADT. DADT targets these service members regardless of their actual sexual orientation.
So, what happens next? SLDN is faced with a situation on continuing to show its support for transgender service members without damaging the integrity of MREA. The TAVA survey has been read by Congress people already, so it is no longer a secret. SLDN may start getting tough questions about transgender service members, which was not TAVA's intention.
We know there are solutions to help them in answering these questions and TAVA is ready to sit down and talk with them to work out those solutions. I am sure that conversation will be happening very soon, when the DNC Convention hoopla has calmed down. What ideas TAVA has are not for this article. When we have made a coordinated decision with SLDN on how to approach this new issue, everyone else will know. We want to take a unified direction that will help all service members and not hurt any of them.