Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made headlines in May when he said that the policy excluding transgender people from serving in the military should "continually be reviewed," and that he "would be open" to rethinking the ban. His remarks led many to hope that a change in regulations for transgender service members could happen in the near future.
Since the 2010 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" — a policy enacted by the Bill Clinton administration that required gay and lesbian service members to remain closeted about their sexuality — the campaign to end the exclusion of transgender people in the military has also picked up steam.
This effort was aided by reports from the Palm Center think tank in March 2014 and the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law in May, which estimate that around 15,500 people currently serving in the US military are transgender. Data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey and the US Census Bureau shows that there are about 134,300 transgender veterans, and that military service is more common among transgender people than it is among the general American population. No data is available on whether these individuals are pre- or post-transition.
With the support of a number of retired generals, the Palm Center, which focuses on gender and sexuality in the military, released another report on Tuesday on how to navigate and implement the necessary policy changes to allow transgender people to openly serve.
"We have men and women around America that are willing to serve, that would like to come in, or are actively serving, and what we ask them to do when they're inside the military — to pretend that they're not transgender — is just wrong," Gale Pollock, former acting surgeon general of the US Army and co-chair of the commission that produced the report, told VICE News.
By looking at 18 other countries — including Australia, Germany, and the UK — that now allow transgender military members to serve openly, the report concludes that "formulating and implementing inclusive policy is administratively feasible and neither excessively complex nor burdensome." Referring to a policy change to allow transgender service members as "inevitable," the report examines potential policy changes as they relate to administrative concerns, training, and other areas.
Pollock, in conjunction with commission members Clara Adams-Ender, former chief of the US Army Nurse Corps, and Thomas Kolditz, a professor emeritus at the US Military Academy at West Point, released a statement with the report in which they state that "implementation could proceed immediately and will be successful in its execution."
Among the report's recommendations are that information related to gender identity be kept confidential, just as with other medical information, and that transgender military members be upheld to the same physical requirements and assignment rules as their target gender.
"I'm hoping that our report serves as a good road map for [Secretary Hagel] and his staff on how to move that forward, because we don't believe it'll be a problem," said Pollock.
The Department of Defense (DoD), which has full control over the policies dictating entrance to the military, maintains that transgender individuals cannot join the military due to medical reasons, citing "history of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia including but not limited to change of sex" as grounds for refusing to admit those wishing to serve. However, as the Palm Center report notes, gender reassignment has been "de-pathologized" recently by the World Health Organization and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5).
'Some might join to prove themselves, and some might do it because their masculinity is more accepted, but the majority do it for the same reasons everyone else does.'
Despite the ban on military service, about 21.4 percent of the total transgender population in the US is estimated to have served in the military, according to the report. This likely makes it one of the largest employers of transgender people in the country, documentary series TransMilitary host and producer Fiona Dawson told VICE News.
While it's not entirely clear why military participation is so popular among transgender individuals, it may have something to do with perceptions of identity.
"We join for essentially the same reasons that other Americans do," Brynn Tannehill, director of advocacy at LGBT military organization SPART*A, told VICE News. "Some might join to prove themselves, and some might do it because their masculinity is more accepted, but the majority do it for the same reasons everyone else does."
Tannehill, herself transgender and a member of the navy and naval reserves for 13 years, believes that her experience in the military would have been different had there not been a ban on transgender service members.
"I probably would have come out sometime while I was at the Academy, because I knew even then, and I think my military career probably would have gone on longer, because I did get out in order to transition," she says.
However, not all agree that an end to the ban on transgender service members would be an unequivocally good thing.
Dean Spade, an associate professor at Seattle University and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Project to aid trans, intersex, and non-gender conforming people with legal information, believes that focusing on transgender military members takes attention away from issues more pressing to the transgender community, such as poverty and violence.
"Trans people, trans organizations, the trans movement did not choose this battle," he told BuzzFeed last September. He points to the $1.35 million donation to the Palm Center by billionaire and transgender veteran Jennifer Natalya Pritzker last year as a sign that the campaign's momentum is primarily coming from above.
"It's a little hard to understand the critique that this discussion is donor-driven when there are 15,500 transgender people currently serving in the military, and there are 134,000 veterans in the US," Palm Center founder and executive director Aaron Belkin told VICE News, however.
Tannehill adds that allowing transgender individuals to serve openly is the best way to ensure their safety, and to combat abuse and sexual assault against transgender individuals within the military.
"I can tell you that some of our members have been assaulted, and I can also tell you that the policy as it stands now means that our people are afraid to report being assaulted, because it means when the investigation happens their cellphones, their computers, their email accounts will all be looked at, and they are terrified that they will be found out and kicked out of the military," she says. "Any policy that the DoD has right now which discourages service members from reporting being sexually assaulted is something that should be looked at with strict scrutiny."
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