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The transgender military debate: policy versus culture 

Queer & There

As a transgender veteran, it's always awkward whenever I run into other veterans at social events, especially dudes. One of the first questions veterans ask each other — and with combat arms dudes there is always this smug smirk that accompanies it — is "so what was your MOS [military occupational specialty, your job]?" A lot of times I'll just lie and tell people I was a human resources specialist, or maybe supply. I try to choose something innocuous and boring that invites the other vet to tell me their cool deployment stories.

I'm a 33-year-old high school teacher and a mother of three. Despite the fact that women have served in the military in a variety of capacities since the United States has existed, people still have sexist assumptions about women's ability to serve.

If I tell people I worked in an administrative or logistical role during my time in the Army, no one thinks twice about it. Sometimes, though, I forget about the changes I've made in the past three years and will nonchalantly reply "infantry." I explain that I'm trans, and half the time they find some excuse to be anywhere that isn't next to me. The other half of the time we end up chatting about deployments and making fun of the Air Force.

Last year, President Barack Obama's secretary of defense, Ash Carter, lifted the Pentagon's ban on transgender people serving openly in the U.S. military. The move was hailed as a victory for transgender rights. Last week, President Donald Trump's defense secretary, Jim Mattis, issued a memo that delayed the enlistment of transgender service members for six months in order to "evaluate more carefully the impact of such accessions on readiness and lethality."

Since Carter's initial announcement last year, many people within the military community have spoken out against trans people serving openly in the armed forces. Their arguments have focused, like Mattis', on readiness and unit morale. Their sentiments match those of the War Department in 1940, regarding the racial integration of the U.S. military, which argued that integration would "produce situations destructive to morale and detrimental to the preparation for national defense."

As the success of racial integration has shown, such arguments have more to do with the comfort of those in power than with any actual concerns about military effectiveness.

The real problem is not that transgender people will somehow degrade the military's ability to kill people overseas, but that cisgender and heterosexual soldiers will have to put up with and even respect (one of those Army values we all had to memorize in basic training) people who are different from them.

Culturally, the military — especially the combat arms branches — is a conservative place. Racism and sexism were still problems when I served, despite the efforts of Army-mandated Equal Opportunity reps, and the casual homophobia was inescapable.

When Carter made his announcement, I recognized it as an attempt at inclusion. I knew that there was still no way an infantry soldier was going to feel comfortable or safe enough to tell their squad leader, platoon sergeant or first sergeant, "Hey, I'm trans, these are my pronouns and here is the medical care I'd like to receive."

There is a huge difference between an official policy regarding inclusion and an actual culture of inclusion. Mattis' policy reversal simply confirms what LGBTQ service members have felt every time their battle buddy quoted R. Lee Ermey's "steers and queers" line from Full Metal Jacket: "We're not really welcome."

Which, unfortunately, is the reality of existing as an LGBTQ person in this society. Many of us are willing to repress ourselves, to conform, to do what we need to do in order to get by. I did. Kristin Beck, the decorated Navy SEAL and trans rights advocate, did. Christine Jorgensen, the late World War II-era G.I. who "went abroad and came back a broad," did.

Transgender people have been serving in the military, and then leaving the service to transition, for more than 50 years now.

As our nation's all-volunteer military enters its 16th year in the Global War on Terrorism, it is good to know our leaders are so concerned with readiness that they would disenfranchise an entire group of people to accommodate the regressive prejudices of straight society.

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