Navy Seal Kris Beck deployed 13 times during her more than 20 years in service and earned both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. However, if she tried to join the military today, Beck would be swiftly rejected. Beck is transgender—and the military has made it clear that though gay and lesbian Americans can now join the military, transgender folks are still not welcome.
Beck, (pictured above) who went by Chris during her service, published the memoir Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender this month. Despite the military’s institutional hostility toward transgender members, Beck describes receiving overwhelming support from fellow SEALS around the world. “I just wanted to drop you a note and tell you that Kris has all the support and respect from me that Chris had … and quite possibly more,” wrote one.
Currently, at least ten countries—Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand and the U.K.—permit transgender people to serve in the military at least to a certain extent. Some of these countries accept or reject candidates on a case-by-case basis, others have certain regulations and policies.
Meanwhile in the U.S., the inclusion of transgender people has yet to make its way to the national political table. This September will mark two years since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT)—a sure step forward for current and future armed service members, but also an exclusionary one. The Department of Defense clarified after the repeal that the progressive legal change did not apply to transgender people, who are not permitted to join the due to the military’s long-standing ban on people with “current or a history of psychosexual conditions.”
The repeal of DADT—in addition to the recent decision to officially allow women in combat—proves the military’s ability to evolve as an institution. But is transgender inclusion on the horizon?
Trans-inclusion should definitely be a big issue for the military: a gender researcher at the Williams Institute estimates there are about 140,000 trans veterans. One study on found that military men are twice as likely to identify as transgender than their civilian counterparts; the study’s author, George Brown, wrote that “They joined the service, in their words, ‘to become a real man.’”
As it stands now, the military views transgenderism as a psychological disorder that disqualifies trans folks from service. The Army Medical Services Standards of Medical Fitness, for example, describes “transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestitism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias” as causes for rejection in Section 2-30 on Psychosexual Conditions. Any evidence of ‘lying’ about one’s gender during a background check would result in disqualification and using something other than one’s sex at birth on entry forms can be considered ‘fraudulent enlistment.’
But even if one begins transitioning after successfully enlisting, there are several policies in place to expel trans and gender non-conforming individuals, according to a report from the University of California-Santa Barbara. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, military personnel must report any external healthcare; doing so would reveal gender nonconformity, but not doing so puts you at risk for criminal action. Regulation of gender in the armed services is nothing if not thorough, and many policy changes would need to take place to allow transgender people to serve openly. A small piece of good news is that unlike DADT, the military autonomously decides what medical and psychological barriers to put in place, so an act of Congress would not be necessary.
There have been at least some small, but not insignificant, changes in institutional attitudes towards trans people. In December last year, the American Psychological Association decided to remove ‘gender identity disorder’ from their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and instead begin using the more neutral diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria,’ a term used to describe emotional distress over one’s gender. (It is worth noting, however, that without a medical diagnosis like GID, sex reassignment surgery and accompanying treatments, such as hormones, could likely be considered cosmetic surgery and no longer be covered by health insurance).
Furthermore, the Department of Veteran Affairs now only refers to trans veterans by their preferred name and gender pronouns and offers therapy and hormone treatment. Just last month, Navy veteran and trans woman Autumn Sandeen, who in April 2010 travelled cross-country from San Diego to D.C. and handcuffed herself to the fence of the White House in her Naval uniform in protest of the military’s discriminatory policies, received the following letter from the VA: “Per your request the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) has been updated to show your gender as female effective April 12, 2013.”
Opportunities for trans people to become involved in the military are emerging: post-transition, Erika Stenton wanted to return to military service in some way, and though she acknowledges that “the path I took isn’t widely available, and the bar was set very high,” she succeeded. After a medical review and re-establishing her security clearance, the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW), a new program in the Department of Defense, allowed Stenton to volunteer for the Army and deploy to Afghanistan. Her gender status was taken into account with housing, and she was housed without a roommate when possible and with other women otherwise. Furthermore, “legal and HR officials made it clear to me once I arrived at the deployed location that any cases of discrimination would be taken seriously and handled appropriately,” Stenton wrote of this experience.
The American military does not exist in a vacuum, but is one of many institutions in our society that are closely intertwined, and moreover, trans discrimination is widespread in the civilian world.
The case of Army Pvt. First Class Bradley Manning, currently on trial for leaking thousands of classified documents, illustrates this to a degree. After Wired published chat conversations in which Manning appeared to express identifying as a woman (“I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as a boy…”) and New York Magazine ran a feature piece in which an anonymous counselor said that Manning “felt he [sic] was female” and “wanted to do surgery,” Manning’s gender identity became a topic of national conversation. But what’s revealing is how this conversation has panned out. The Daily Beast described Manning as “suffering from gender identification disorder,” and emphasized his “mental-health struggles.” ABC News referred to Manning’s possible trans identification as an “alter ego.” The same article explains how in the pre-trail, Manning’s lawyer brought up his ‘gender identity disorder’ to show “what was going on in my client’s mind,” suggesting that transgenderism automatically implies instability. Indeed, Master Sgt. Craig Blenis Tweeted that it was “not normal and not stable” when he received letters from Manning signing off as ‘Breanna,’ contributing to a decision to place him on Prevention of Injury status that was effectively solitary confinement.
The way in which Manning’s rumored trans status has influenced his media coverage and trial shows that trans equality will require more than the military alone to adjust; it will require a major culture change.
In his statement on the repeal of DADT, President Barack Obama claimed that “patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love.” Sadly, this is still not yet true.
Here is an explanation of why this article refers to Manning by masculine gender pronouns and as ‘Bradley’ and not ‘Breanna.’