Op-ed: The Policies Keeping Trans People From Military Service
Last week the Palm Center's Transgender Military Service Commission concluded that "there is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service, and that eliminating the ban would advance a number of military interests, including enabling commanders to better care for their service members."
The Departments of Defense's stance on trans service members dates back decades and is based significantly on an outdated belief that trans people are mentally disordered and gender-affirmation surgeries make trans people unfit to serve.
For example, in 1987 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Jane Anne Leyland, an Air Force Reserve officer then selected for lieutenant colonel. An Air Force medical board determined Leyland was “psychologically unsuitable and physically unfit because of transsexualism and completion of sex change surgery.” After she was discharged, she challenged her discharge in federal court. The ruling for Leyland v. Orr cited physician Donald Novicki's official Air Force opinion as a reason for the ruling against Leyland.
"Dr. Novicki, urology consultant to the Air Force surgeon general, stated that the known and potential long-term effects of a sex change constitute a risk significant enough to restrict the individual’s performance of Air Force duties," reads the appeals court decision, "especially when remote geographic assignments are involved. Dr. Novicki stated that assigning such a person to such places ‘would be equivalent to placing an individual with known coronary artery disease in a remote location without readily available coronary care.' He further stated '[i]t has been and remains the policy of the surgeon general that such abnormalities be identified and that such individuals be denied entry or continued active duty for their benefit and for the benefit of the United States Air Force.'"
The DoD codified its policies against trans people serving decades ago. The department's medical standards for participation in military service list a "history of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia such as including but not limited to change of sex" and "hermaphroditism, pseudohermaphroditism, or pure gonadal dysgenesis" as reasons to preclude transgender and intersex Americans from serving in the military. The document also precludes from serving those who have "current or history of psychosexual conditions, including but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias."
Should a person have already joined and then later be discovered to be transgender or intersex, then the department would apply standards for discharge similar to those it applies to enlistment or appointment to the military services.
The military's policies on this rely heavily on previous editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The terms and diagnosis of "transsexualism" in and "gender identity disorder" in are referenced in the DoD's overarching instructions, as well as the Army's, Navy's, and Air Force's specific implementing instructions. However, DSM-V no longer classifies gender nonconformity as a mental illness.
It shouldn't be lost on LGBT Americans that even though homosexuality was removed from the DSM as a disorder in 1973, it was still listed by DoD as a mental health disorder until 2006.
Quoting the Transgender Military Service Commission report, "Medical regulations requiring the discharge of all transgender personnel are inconsistent with how the military regulates medical and psychological conditions, and arbitrary in that medical conditions related to transgender identity appear to be the only gender-related conditions requiring discharge irrespective of fitness for duty."
Repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" didn't directly affect trans people because it only addressed sexual orientation. Regulation alone now stands between transgender service members and the ability to serve openly as trans people. In the struggle for open military service for all LGBT service members, we should not — we morally cannot — leave trans service members behind.
Good service members who are trans just want to do their jobs and serve their country. Instead, they face unemployment, loss of valuable benefits such as the GI Bill, and a discharge characterization that can harm them for the rest of their lives if they're discovered. Changing DoD policies for trans people so that they can serve openly would allow the DoD to enlist and retain many highly qualified, talented, and motivated individuals.
This report moves the LGBT community one step closer to open military service for our community siblings. I think that's a good thing. I look forward to the day my peer T subcommunity siblings in the LGBT community are free to openly serve in our country's military.
AUTUMN SANDEEN is a disabled (service-connected) Persian Gulf War veteran who retired from the U.S. Navy in 2000 with 20-years of service. As a transgender veteran, in 2010 she and other LGBT veterans were jailed twice in GetEqual direct actions at the White House advocating repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." In the past she blogged for Pam's House Blend, and currently she is an editor at The Transadvocate and a columnist for LGBT Weekly.