Op-ed: Remember, There Are Transgender People Lost Serving in Silence

By Michael Silverman

Originally published on Advocate.com May 26 2014 4:12 AM ET

Right: Michael Silverman

As America commemorates Memorial Day, my thoughts turn to all service members who have lost their lives in the line of duty. But in my role as the head of a national transgender advocacy organization, I can’t help but think most specifically about all of the transgender men and women who died serving in silence. While the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell”is thankfully long gone, it lifted the ban on military service only by gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. It did nothing for transgender service members, who are still barred from serving because of medical regulations that are biased and out of date.

Just two weeks ago Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave transgender people and their allies a glimmer of hope when he said on ABC’s This Week that those medical regulations which keep transgender people from active military service “continually should be reviewed.” He went on to say, “Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.”

I along with other transgender advocates commend Hagel for his comments, but we must continue urging him to stay true to his word and turn his rhetoric into action. Allowing open military service by transgender people is long overdue. There are currently more than 15,000 transgender people risking their lives for our country every day, but they cannot be open about who they are because they’ll be discharged. Just as it was wrong to deny qualified gay, lesbian, and bisexual people the chance to defend this country, it is equally wrong to do the same thing to our transgender brothers and sisters.

The recent front page story about the highly respected sailor Landon Wilson starkly illustrated the discrimination facing transgender service members. It also spotlighted the serious brain drain his dismissal created for the U.S. Navy: the loss of a talented and qualified individual who was, as The Washington Post described it, “intercepting and analyzing communications from foreign governments and extremists.”When Wilson was outed as transgender, he was immediately discharged from this exceptionally sensitive post, even after the Navy had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars training him. That’s a high price to pay for upholding the Pentagon’s antiquated medical rules.

Last March a Palm Center nonpartisan commission of medical and psychological experts, cochaired by former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, denounced the ban on open military service by transgender people. “The Report of the Transgender Military Service Commission” concluded, “There is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service, and medical regulations requiring the discharge of all transgender personnel are inconsistent with how the military regulates medical and psychological conditions.” Elders herself stated, “The ban on transgender service has long been a policy in search of a rationale. We looked hard for any type of sound rationale and found none. Reforming the policy is really a simple matter of updating references to outdated medical science and removing unnecessary barriers to enlistment and retention.”

There is even more evidence that the United States Armed Forces should be ready for this change: 12 other countries have successfully integrated transgender people into their militaries, including our close allies Australia, England, and Israel. It is time for our leaders to take notice and take the necessary steps to end the ban on transgender people in the military.

So on this day when many of us will attend ceremonies, read news reports, and watch television programs that pay tribute to the countless lives lost in defense of our nation, I will take a moment to think about the many transgender people who also paid the ultimate price, having fought just as hard as all the others. Their sacrifices were no less worthy, but they were denied the dignity of being honest and open about who they were. I hope that Defense Secretary Hagel’s remarks are a sign of better days ahead, a time when our military is truly equal, not only for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people but also for transgender people who wish to serve our country.

MICHAEL SILVERMAN is the executive director of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, an organization committed to ending discrimination based upon gender identity and expression and to achieving equality for transgender people through public education, test-case litigation, and direct action.