Seeing the ban on open lesbians and gays in the military lifted is a bittersweet victory of transgenders, who still can’t serve openly
TAMMYE NASH | Senior Editor
As lesbian and gay servicemembers and military veterans are celebrating the repeal of the military’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — despite delays in implementing the repeal — transgender servicemembers and veterans once again find themselves left behind in the battle for equality.
Because repealing DADT did not end the ban on service by trans people.
“The military still puts trans people in the same medical category as pedophilia. They consider it [transgenderism] to be a medical disorder,” said Monica Helms, president and co-founder of Transgender American Veterans Association.
“Trans people still have to be deep in the closet. They can’t talk to anyone about their lives, or they risk being discharged and getting something other than an honorable discharge,” Helms added. “Because the kind of discharge you get can make a huge difference in what kind of benefits you can get.”
Helms said that there is one way in which DADT repeal will affect trans servicemembers: Now the military will have to find a different reason for discharging trans people.
“A lot of times, trans people were discharged under DADT because the military isn’t smart enough to know the difference between gender identity/gender expression and sexual orientation. They think if a man wears a dress, he must be gay.”
Other trans servicemembers were discharged for “medical reasons,” others were discharged as “undesirables,” Helms said. “I guess they will go back to doing those things when they can’t use DADT anymore.”
Even those people who transition after leaving the military still face discrimination from the Veterans Administration, Helm said.
Helms, who served as a submariner in the Navy for eight years in the 1970s, said conservative estimates put the number of transgender veterans at roughly 300,000 people.
“We figure trans people are about 1 percent of the population. That’s counting everyone under the transgender umbrella, and it’s a rough estimate,” Helms said. “And the percentage of trans people in the military veteran population is about the same.”
So, with about 26 million veterans and another 1.5 million active-duty servicemembers, more or less, do the math and you come up with about 280,000 transgender veterans. Helms said TAVA rounds that up to about 300,000, based on statistics from the VA and personal experience.
“If we are at an event for trans people, when we ask the veterans to stand up, there are a whole lot of people that stand up, so we figure that rounding up the numbers is accurate,” she said.
When a trans veteran tries to access the benefits they earned with their service, particularly medical benefits, the results are mixed, Helms said.
“Some places, they are treated fairly well; some places they are treated very badly,” she said. “The benefits don’t cover any of the [transitional] surgeries at all. But we have heard stories of trans vets being turned down for even the most basic medical services that they are entitled to.
“The doctors misgender them on purpose, they refuse to change names in the database, they call them names,” Helms continued. “Doctors, nurses, other patients — we have heard stories about trans veterans being mistreated by all of them.”
Helms said she has never encountered such problems because she has never had to use any of the VA’s medical services.
“I used the education benefits, and I got a VA loan to buy my house. But I always had decent jobs and had private insurance through my employers, so I’ve never had to use the medical benefits. So my trans status was never an issue,” she said.
Maeve O’Connor, a trans veteran from Dallas, spent 4 ½ years on active duty in the Navy, and another 4 ½ years in the Navy Reserves. Like Helms, O’Connor didn’t begin to transition until after she had left the military, and like Helms, she has never had to access VA medical benefits.
But O’Connor recently reached the point of having her name and gender markers officially changed on legal documents, like her birth certificate, and she said she is unsure what will happen when she contacts the VA to have her name and gender markers corrected on her military records.
“Now that it’s official, I do need to go in and get those records changed. I don’t know what will happen when I do. I’ve not had any experience with the VA as a transgender person, so I don’t know how difficult it will be to deal with them,” O’Connor said.
For Micki Garrison, another local transgender veteran, the specter of wrangling with a hostile VA bureaucracy made it not worth the effort of even trying to access VA benefits.
Garrison said she had graduated high school and finished a semester of college when the expense of a college education became too big a burden. So she joined the Army and finished a three-year enlistment so she could get the educational benefits offered to veterans.
But like Helms and O’Connor, that military service happened long before she began her transition, although she — also like Helms and O’Connor — was already beginning to struggle with her gender identity when she enlisted.
“I just ran out of patience with the bureaucracy. I just can’t deal with it anymore. I have other battles to fight, so I will leave that battle for other people to fight,” Garrison said. “If it was just, ‘Yeah, you are trans, but you are also a veteran, so we will help you out,’ that would be one thing. But all that frustration with the bureaucracy makes it just not worth it to bother.”
Besides, Garrison said, “many of the benefits they offer didn’t turn out to that big of a benefit anyway.”
Ending the trans ban
Garrison said that while she and other transgender veterans she knows are happy on behalf of lesbian and gay veterans and servicemembers to see DADT repealed, for transgenders, it was a bittersweet victory at best.
“We are really happy for the gay and lesbian servicemembers, sure. But at the same time, it’s like getting up on Christmas morning and seeing presents under the tree for everybody but you,” Garrison said. “I don’t want to sound like sour grapes. But while other people now get the chance to live their lives openly and with dignity and respect, trans people are left empty-handed again.”
But as much as she would like to see the ban on transgenders in the military ended, Garrison isn’t at all optimistic about that actually happening.
“I’d say we are at least 50 to 100 years away from that,” she said. “Opponents would be so very adamantly against it, I don’t think there’s even a snowball’s chance in hell that it’s even a battle worth fighting right now.
“That’s very, very sad. But it’s hard for me to come to a place where I could even believe that kind of change is possible. I mean, we are still trying to get procedures in place where we can get a driver’s license or fly on a plane without hassles.”
Garrison noted that most people enlisting in the military are young — just out of high school, or college-aged. Trans people at that age are many times just beginning to fight their own internal battles over their gender identity, she said.
“How could I have been openly trans at that point in my life? I wasn’t able to deal with it [my gender identity], how can I expect the military to deal with it?” Garrison said.
She pointed out that there are different stages to transitioning, and said those stages would cause ongoing problems in the strict military environment. Things like housing and combat status could prove uncomfortable, at least, for both the trans servicemember and their fellow soldiers.
“We bring a lot of hard questions to the table, especially during that time of transition — and that can be a long time,” Garrison said. “It’s very sad, I think. As much as I wish there would be inclusion, but the complexity level of transitioning is such a personal thing. A lot of people have to pull out of mainstream life to get that worked out and then re-integrate. I think until we have an ‘in-between’ state in our culture, until it’s not just either-or genders, I don’t think there will be good answers to the military situation.”
O’Connor acknowledged that the situation is “tricky.” But, she added, “It’s not un-overcomable.”
She said, “I think if you can do the job and live up to the goals and ideas of the military, then it shouldn’t be an issue. But it is definitely a complicated situation. There’s a lot involved. When you are a transsexual, you are transitioning in some way, and if you are transitioning, say, from male to female going into the military, then the military has to be willing to treat you like any other woman in the military.”
But, O’Connor added, transgender people joining the military would have to be willing to make some concessions, too.
“Yes, everyone should be able to serve. But the military is all about discipline, and everything is very cut and dried. And transgender people joining the military have to be willing to accept that discipline, just as a matter of security,” O’Connor said. “When you join the military, you join knowing that you are giving up some of your constitutional freedoms to a certain extent. The Code of Military Justice is stricter than civilian law, and the reason for that is safety. You have to follow that chain of command.”
But for Helms, the issue simply isn’t that complicated at all.
“We are not inventing the wheel here,” Helms said. “Eight of our ally countries already allow trans people to serve openly to different degrees, including our ally to the north, Canada, which has let trans people serve openly since 1998.
“I know a trans woman in Canada who has served for 28 years. She transitioned in the military, and they paid for everything. It’s just not a big deal there,” Helms continued. “The U.K., Israel, Australia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Spain — there are different levels of service and different policies dealing with it in different places, but come on. They all let trans people serve openly in the military.
“But our country is backward,” Helms said. “In our country, they think everything is a problem. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Just let the people who want to serve, serve openly and with integrity. That’s all it takes.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.