Editors' Note: Attorney and former Marine Captain Tom Carpenter has been writing about the bias against trans servicemembers for a very long time. This essay hopes to serve as a reminder of the pain of serving in silence.
I recently blogged about the unfinished mission after repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law (DADT). Most of the blog dealt with well known issues related to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), family benefits, and instituting a non-discrimination policy to prevent hostile workplace issues. I also brought up transgender service - which has been allowed in the United Kingdom even before they were forced to permit lesbian, gay and bisexuals to serve - as one of the remaining challenges. One of my readers, Sharon W, vehemently disagreed with my support of the transgender community, and the opportunity to be in the armed forces.
Sharon W wrote:
If the "LGBT" ideologues had had their way, our side would have had to insist upon the right of cross-dressers to serve openly before any repeal could happen. Thus, there would have been no DADT repeal, just as there has been no ENDA and will be no ENDA any time in the near future.
The issues raised by "transgender" military service are wholly distinct from those raised by LGB service. Many transgenders suffer from a recognized mental illness, GID. Others have or are in the process of altering their bodies surgically and/or via hormone therapy. This raises real issues concerning fitness for service, at least in some cases. None of this has anything to do with gay servicemen and servicewomen, and it is entirely right that this issue was kept out of DADT repeal, even if it hurt Mr. Carpenter's feelings.
It is unfortunate that there continues to be an unthinking assertion that gays and lesbians form one "people" with transgenders. In fact, LGBT is a recent contrivance. "Transgender" is an umbrella term (which is rejected by some of its would-be members) which encompasses various subgroups; the vast majority of the members of these subgroups are not gay. LGBs should be friends to trans people, but it makes absolutely no sense to continue to insist on using terms like "LGBT people" when there is no such thing.
When I read Sharon's comments, I felt a lot of things. I was surprised there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about what transgender and gender dysphoria means. There was disappointment that some in the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) community would so casually turn their backs on people who are on the same side as us on every major issue: the end of DADT, marriage equality, the end of DOMA, passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), and every form of legal protection for LGB people. The implication that trans people are ballast that should be chucked overboard at the earliest opportunity disturbed me greatly.
(Stuart Pearce, an openly gay Engineering Officer with the Royal New Zealand Air Force and openly gay Stuart Obrien, a Warrant Officer with the Royal Australian Navy - pictured here with trans Human Rights Campaign Deputy Director for Employee Programs Allyson Robinson during the historic first OutServe conference last October in Las Vegas.)
(Trans SLDN staffer Paula Niera) Like many gay men, to my knowledge, I had never had any encounters with trans folks in my life or career. I even recall the first time I considered the difficulties faced by trans people in our society. It was at an SLDN board meeting when we were discussing the issue of trans people serving in the armed forces and I started to understand what their lives were like. We were so woefully ignorant that as co-chair of the board, I asked one of our staff, Paula Niera, a fellow Naval Academy graduate and trans person, to make a presentation to the board about her community. It was a real eye opener for everyone. What follows is some of what I learned from her and from other trans folks I have met over the years.
Gender Identity Disorder is a diagnosis of the past
First of all, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) will be officially wiped from the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM) in May 2013, the same way homosexuality was taken out of the DSM in 1973. The term is being replaced by gender dysphoria.
What is even more important than the name change is that gender dysphoria does not imply, in any way, shape, or form, a disordered personality. It is not categorized as a disorder, or even a psychological condition. It treats it as more likely to be a medical condition, since psychiatric disorders are not treated with hormones and surgery.
This comes in recognition of the fact that many, many extremely high functioning transsexuals achieved great things before, during, and after transition. Lynn Conway, Dr. Christine McGinn, Shannon Rice Minter, Paula Neira, Paula Ridenour, Allyson Robinson, Amanda Simpson, Monica Roberts, Dr. Jillian T. Weiss, Dr. Chloe Schwenke, Barbra Casbar-Siperstein, Meghan Stabler, and other retired trans E-9s, O-5s, and O-6s I have met are examples of the fact that trans people can be successful and serve honorably for 20 plus years in the military services.
The argument that trans people are too mentally ill to succeed is demonstrably wrong, and a conclusion backed by the American Psychiatric Association. Also incorrect is the argument that they shouldn't serve because they are more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. The LGB community is also more likely to suffer from depression for many of the same reasons as transgender people: social isolation, ostracization, harmful labeling, and internalized homophobia or transphobia are all factors common to both groups. But despite higher rates of depression, the LGB community is given the opportunity to serve.
Cross-dressing is a straw man
Sharon also raises the issue of cross-dressers. According to David McKean, legal counsel for the Servicemember's Legal Defense Network (SLDN), no one has been discharged for cross-dressing since the mid-90's, when one individual was foolish enough to drive onto a base en femme. The precedent is already pretty well established now: as long as you're following regulations on base and at work, you're free to dress as you want in town. As such, the argument is a straw man. There are cross dressers and drag performers in the military, but people are not being kicked out for it. They are not having a hard time figuring out what uniform to wear, how to wear it, or what personal grooming standards apply.
Trans people have sexual orientations too
Sharon also argues that trans people are not lesbian, gay, or bisexual. I submit that any trans person who isn't asexual has to have some sexual orientation and at some point in their lives likely are, or were, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Author Kate Borenstein (Gender Outlaw), for instance, was born a biological man attracted to women and is now a lesbian, as is Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
I know a trans woman who married a woman before transition and is still married after transition. It started as an apparently heterosexual relationship. Now, it looks like a lesbian one, complete with all the worries about partner benefits, fears of being attacked in public, being afraid to show signs of affection in public, and dealing with how teachers and other administrators treat their children for being in a non-traditional family.
Trans people are already serving in the armed forces
Do medical procedures make trans people unfit for service? The issues of hormones and surgery are much simpler than critics of transgender service make them out to be. How many women in the service take birth control? How many people take 6 weeks off for medical reasons during their military career? Recovery time from gender change-related surgery is also roughly 6 weeks. Given the commonality of medical issues throughout a career, and the rarity of transsexuals, it is unlikely to place a significant burden on the force, especially since the timing of reassignment surgery can be scheduled to have minimal impact on readiness. In fact, 10 of our allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have figured out how to make it work. This isn't rocket science. Finally, as you read this, there are active duty United States service members already secretly transitioning.
We should leave no one behind
What is most troubling on a number of levels is the belief that trans people are an albatross around our collective necks. This feels to me like betraying an old friend and ally, let alone an allegiance I swore as a Marine so many years ago. I can personally attest that most members of the trans community understood that demanding to be included in the repeal of DADT could doom that effort to failure. In a measured decision, their leaders chose to hold their fire so we could win that hard fought victory - something for which I, for one, am grateful.
Now, after having made this sacrifice, and despite many common experiences, similarities in suffering, causes we are united behind, the same opponents, and a shared history from Stonewall on - can you imagine how much it must hurt for them to be told they are not a member of the team?
The core values of the Marines are "Honor, Courage and Commitment." These values underlie the ethos of, "leave no one behind." As a former Marine, I am ashamed when members of my LGB community - which I have fought so long and hard for - show so little loyalty, much less empathy, for other members of our team.
The trans community falls behind
What makes it worse in some ways is that our LGB community appears to be winning. The tide of history is washing out old biases against LGB people. DADT is gone. DOMA looks doomed. ENDA enjoys broad popular support. 86% of Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies for sexual orientation and 60% have partner benefits.
At the same time, the trans community continues to struggle. And, as trans writer Monica Roberts - pictured to the left - pointed out in the March 2012 issue of Ebony magazine, it's been a very, very long struggle:
The gender non-conforming African American youth in Philadelphia, PA who kick-started the Dewey's Lunch Counter Sit In and Protest in April and May of 1965 were a prime example of such involvement. It was the first protest specifically organized around and concerning trans issues, and preceded both the 1966 Compton's Cafeteria Riots and the better known 1969 Stonewall Riots in which African American transgender advocates such as Miss Major and Marsha P. Johnson were involved.
The struggle is clearly due to discrimination, lack of legal protection and lack of access to medical care for trans-related issues. Only 19% of companies provide any kind of transition-related care.
Transgender people also live in extreme poverty at a rate four times higher than the general population, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
While it is common to blame the victim, the economic woes of trans people are not due to laziness or dysfunctionality. Trans people are 50% more likely to have college degrees than the population at large and more than twice as likely to have a graduate degree. They are doing the things that are supposed to make you successful, but the discrimination against them is so profound: society tends to see any merits they have in their education, character, or experience as being outweighed by being transgender.
(Graphs Courtesy of NCTE)
The trans community is already at the bottom of society's rung now. The question of what will happen to the trans community if it is left to fend for itself should be chilling to students of history. What happens to any tiny, despised, helpless minority group that gets blamed for society's ills? The answer is a simple one: nothing good. There are still psychiatrists like Fox News' own Dr. Keith Ablow, and the Bioethics Wing of the Catholic Church calling for trans people to be involuntarily committed and drugged with anti-psychotics. There is a Republican State Senator threating to personally beat any trans person near to death for using a bathroom not on their original birth certificate.
If you are still reading this, and you still agree with Sharon, I believe there are a few things you need to ask yourself:
- Do you know any trans people? If so, do you consider them friends? If not, why not?
- Are you embarrassed to be associated with trans people? If so, do you feel the same way about LGB people who act outrageously at pride events? If they are an embarrassment too, why should they share the same protections as the rest of the LGB community?
- Who gets to define if you are LGB? You? Society? Or is it up to each individual to define themselves?
- If a group of people shares a similar set of defining life experiences, and status in society, are they more alike than different?
- If the appearance (or voices) of trans people makes you uncomfortable, is that sufficient justification for treating them differently? Would you feel the same way if it was a burn victim, or a wounded warrior?
- Given the examples above, and the consensus of the APA, why would you believe that trans people are by definition mentally ill or unable to function?
- If the graphs above described a group besides transgender people, would you be outraged? Would you be demanding social justice?
I hope many of the people reading this will take a moment to think about how you felt along the way to accepting yourself: the fear, the hiding, the risks, the losses, and coping with the fact so many people hate you simply because of who you are. For people in the service, there were all the dangers that came with DADT. Now think about someone dealing with all the same things, still in the closet, coping with gender dysphoria and to top it all off, deployed and isolated in a conflict overseas. Where is the empathy in telling them, "It gets better - just not for you?"
There is no empathy - and shame on us.