Transgender troops still facing discrimination

By Brandon Kennedy, Chatham University

Imagine you are serving your country in a mission critical role in a time of war, but you have a terrible secret. One day your superior officer approaches you. He wants to speak to you about something very important. You go cold with fear. Your secret is about to be revealed and you will likely be sent home and discharged. What terrible secret could warrant this sentence? Is it drug addiction, a secret criminal history, or an enemy in a high place?  No, you are just the wrong gender. They send you home and discharge you. Thank you for your service.

This is exactly what happened to Petty Officer Landon Wilson last year. Nearly four years after the repeal of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell,” Wilson received a discharge when his superiors found that he had put “female” on his enlistment paperwork. In 2013, he transitioned to male and began hormone therapy. While serving, Wilson’s Sergeant Major confronted him about his gender. “My senior chief pulled me aside and escorted me into the Sergeant Major’s office. In front of him sat my original enlistment paperwork, which listed me as female. Within hours, I was put on a C-130 back to the U.S. With my departure, there was no one trained to fill my position in Afghanistan.” The Navy discharged Petty Officer Wilson in 2014.

This might be Matthew Klinger’s dream come true, but Wilson had no such aspirations.  He wanted to serve his country in a time of war regardless of the parts between his legs. Klinger is a comedic example of a service member who seeks to obtain a “section 8” discharge by dressing as a woman. The reality, however, is not nearly as funny. The current policy has not advanced in the decades since MASH aired in the 1970s. The U.S. military still regards “gender identity disorder” as a psychological condition on par with “…exhibitionism, transvestitism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias (sic).” Last year the American Psychological Association changed the outdated diagnosis from gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria, effectively removing the condition from the list of mental disorders.

Experts in the field of military readiness also agree that the military needs to change the way they view gender dysphoria.  In March of 2014, the Palm Center published a report on the fitness and treatment of transgender military members. The commission, composed of retired military personnel and chaired by former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Edwards, found that there was “no compelling medical rationale for banning transgendered military service…” Furthermore, the report considered regulations prohibiting gender reassignment surgery to be “harmful to the service members and inconsistent with policy concerning other reconstructive surgeries that service members are allowed to have.”

The commission’s finding is unsurprising given that transgender troops are nothing new. Transgender people have a proud, but little know, tradition of military service. Former Navy Seal and transgender activist Kristen Beck served her country for 20 years before transitioning after she retired. In her biography, Warrior Princess: A US Navy Seal’s Journey to Coming Out Transgender, Beck describes how she masqueraded as a man while she hid her true self behind closed doors. At one point she went so far as to live on a ship hundreds of yards offshore just so she could wear women’s clothing to express her female identity without fear of discovery.

The idea of a genetically male Navy Seal wearing women’s clothing may sound unusual to some, but it may not be that uncommon considering that the ACLU estimates there are currently over 15000 transgender troops serving in active and reserve positions in the U.S. Military. In fact, one in five transgender adults are military veterans, twice the “average” rate of military service. Yet, despite the obvious implication of this data, the U.S. remains the only nation in the western world to prohibit transgender Americans from serving. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a huge step forward, allowing female service members to serve in combat roles was another.  Now it is time to finish the job so that we can finally reap the benefits of a fully inclusive military.


Transgender advocacy groups

TAVA – Transgender American Veterans Association

National Center for Transgender Equality

Trans Advocacy Network