The Silent Soldiers Who Are Still ‘Unfit to Serve’

It’s now OK to be gay in the U.S. military, but The Advocate spoke with several transgender people on why policy means they must remain in the closet.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

September 19 2012 3:53 PM ET

Pictured: Brynn Tannehill, a former lieutenant commander in the Navy and a trans woman

 

Resources to help transgender service members navigate that hypermasculine environment do exist, and many reported finding allies within their platoons and the larger veteran community. The most frequently mentioned resources, though, included Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and OutServe, which was once a secret member organization advocating for silenced gay and lesbian servicemembers. Now, OutServe hosts a similarly secretive group of transgender members, in addition to out and proud LGB soldiers. According to OutServe magazine, that group now boasts more than 70 members — about 1% of the organization’s total membership.

While current military law forbids them from doing so — and pushes trans service members into secret organizations — many who spoke with The Advocate said that they would prefer to be out on the job, and that it would allow them to be better soldiers.

“I would be able to perform my job much better, without holding back anything,” said Jennifer. “There’s no question about running away, or escaping, or trying to find an easy way out. It’s simply wanting to be myself, while continuing to serve and be the best that I can be where I’m at.”

The Department of Defense instructions regarding medical standards list several trans-related procedures as disqualifying acts. Section 6130.03 mentions “history of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia, such as change of sex [and] hermaphroditism.” The same regulations also reference disqualifying mental health conditions, including “current or history of psychosexual conditions, including but not limited to transsexualism [and] transvestism.” The regulations also forbid service by those with “sexual and gender identity disorders,” as defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Previous drafts of the DSM categorized transgender identity as “gender identity disorder,” though that language will be revised in the DSM-V, slated for publication in Spring 2013. The revised manual will refer to transgender identities as “gender dysphoria,” removing the pathologizing language referring to a “disorder.”

Military regulations haven’t caught up to the revised DSM guidelines, though, said Autumn Sandeen, a transgender activist and veteran who served 20 years in the Navy. Sandeen said military policy often lags behind current medical understanding, pointing out that military regulations listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 2009, more than two decades after the DSM removed same-sex attraction from its classification as a psychological disorder.

Yet any service members wanting to seek psychological or medical counsel for their gender issues cannot do so through military health care providers. David McKean, head of the SLDN, said most military psychologists have little or no experience with transgender people or gender dysphoria.  More importantly, there is no presumption of doctor-patient confidentiality within the military medical complex. Military doctors and psychologists are free to report a soldier's gender issues to that soldier's chain of command, which could quickly lead to discharge proceedings. And should a service member seek medical care outside the military complex, they are in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and could be punished. The UCMJ also strictly regulates clothing and gender presentation, and anyone deemed to be “cross-dressing,” even a man wearing an earring, can be reprimanded or discharged under the gender identity provision. 

Brynn Tannehill, a former lieutenant commander in the Navy and a trans woman, may have found the closest feasible option to open trans service. Tannehill is a defense contractor, who transitioned after she left the service while she was between jobs. She now works with civilian leadership and uniformed officers, some of whom are aware of her trans identity.

“The team that I work with, it’s an open secret that I’m trans,” said Tannehill, who also writes for OutServe magazine and serves as OutServe’s transgender blogger. “And it hasn’t been an issue for as long as I’ve been here. It hasn’t come up at all, and [even when] the Department of Defense leadership was here, it has not come into play, that I can tell, so far in the six months that I’ve been here.”

Tannehill — and several active-duty transgender soldiers — are ultimately optimistic about the potential for open service in the military. “I suspect that… integrating trans people who make an effort to conform is not going to be nearly as difficult as people would believe.”

It took 17 years to wipe DADT off the books. How much longer will it take until the military embraces all Americans who have a desire to serve, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity? That’s up to the military brass who use the same rationale to bar transgender service that they once did to bar gay and lesbian service, racially diverse service, and women in uniform: it will harm unit cohesion, retention efforts, and order within the ranks.

Tags: military

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