Those seeking to overturn the U.S. military’s ban on open transgender service say it’s a question of when, not if, the change in policy is made.
That’s the view of Landon Wilson, a 24-year-old transgender former sailor whose story about being discharged from the Navy — despite having critical skills to intercept enemy communications — made the front page of The Washington Post last week.
Speaking with the Washington Blade this week, Wilson wouldn’t predict when the military’s ban on transgender service would be lifted, but said it’s just a matter of time.
“I think that it will be,” Wilson said. “Transgender service is inevitable at this point, it’s just the work to get there, making people understand that we’re not asking for special treatment. We’re not a community that’s asking to be an exception; we’re just asking to be able to have the same rights as everybody else.”
Following publication of the Post piece, which documents his decision to enlist as a sailor, his subsequent decision to transition and discharge from the Navy, Wilson said he received a lot of positive reaction, including from military leaders. He was discharged just two months ago on March 5.
“I had people from the military community in Hawaii actually reach out to me, people that I haven’t talked to before, who were very supportive,” Wilson said. “A lot of higher up leaders contacted me via email or Facebook and extended their sympathy to me, told me they valued the work that I had done. They were apologetic of the policy and that it had to come to this.”
Unlike “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prevented until 2011 openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military, the ban on transgender service in the military is a medical regulation that could be lifted at any time. Under DoD Instruction 6130.03, which was put in place before 1980, disqualifying conditions for military service include change of sex and a “current or history of psychosexual conditions (302) including but not limited to transexualism…exhibitionism, transvestitism, voyeurism and other paraphilias.”
Allyson Robinson, a transgender advocate and policy director for the LGBT military group SPART*A, said in her meetings with Pentagon officials, the message conveyed to her was openly transgender service would happen at some point.
“People ask me what kind of resistance I’m facing,” Robinson said. “To be perfectly honest, I’ve encountered very little resistance. What I do encounter is this resignation: ‘Yes, we know that this has been coming. Yes we know that this needs to get done.’”
Robinson, a transgender veteran herself who transitioned after she left service, said she had the sense when working on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal that the ban on transgender service wouldn’t be lifted for another 15 years. Now, based on the success of the end to the military’s gay ban, she said she’s “very optimistic” the military can move to openly transgender service in between two and five years — starting under the leadership of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
But you wouldn’t know that talking to public relations officials at the Pentagon, who say in response to media requests there are no plans to change the ban on transgender service. In fact, the Human Goals Charter recently signed by top military brass lacked any explicit mention of transgender people working at the Pentagon — either on the military or civilian side — even though other groups, including gay service members, were included.
And the Pentagon has offered a new reason for why it cannot lift the ban: transgender service members often have to serve in “austere environments” where they don’t have access to treatments related to transition. That position has been disputed by bisexual scholar Nathaniel Frank, who wrote in an op-ed for Slate that other kinds of troops are allowed to serve even if they have to receive continual treatment.
That line of thinking also riled Wilson, who pointed out that the military deploys transgender contractors to the same “austere environments” all the time with the ability to obtain treatment free from any bias. Further, Wilson noted other countries have enacted openly transgender service without any problems.
“With that said, our allies who allow transgender service deploy to the same environments with no issues,” Wilson said. “The American military continues to be the odd one out here in holding onto an antiquated policy that weakens our military as an institution and hurts our people who have taken an oath to protect and defend.”
It’s hard to say how many transgender people have been discharged under this regulation. Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said the Pentagon doesn’t track the number of discharges for service members who are transgender.
That’s different than the situation under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The military was keeping tabs on the number of service members discharged for being gay and eventually found nearly 14,000 troops were expelled under the law.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said ending the ban on transgender service is a priority because it’s one of the very few ways in which the federal government itself continues to discriminate against LGBT people.
“And that’s not OK, and those things have to go away,” Keisling added. “The two big ones we’re working on is trans military service and the arbitrary exclusions in the federal employee health benefits plans. Those are just the federal government acting immorally, and capriciously, and that’s a big reason why it’s on our plate.”
Still, even within the transgender community, Keisling said there hasn’t been significant clamor to move forward with ending the military ban compared to other issues.
“There’s a lot of support for us doing this work, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s coming from a groundswell of community interest,” Keisling said. “I think the community is interested and knows that it’s the right thing to do, but for people, it’s definitely not their top priority of things to accomplish.”
Since the time Wilson was discharged, he has relocated to New York City to help produce a documentary called “TransMilitary,” which is set to demonstrate the harms of the ban and compare U.S. policy to other countries, such as that of Great Britain, which Wilson said ended its ban on transgender service before ending its ban on gays in the military.
But if the military were to end its ban on transgender service, Wilson said he would re-enlist in the Navy “in a heartbeat.”
“The military gave me a lot of things on a personal level, and a lot of that general confidence to be able to be whom I am today,” Wilson said. “There’s never been a time in my life where I felt I belonged like I did in the military. The community and the overall family feeling of the military is something that you do not find anywhere else.”