Three years after the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military, a renewed push is underway to allow transgender Americans to serve openly in the armed forces — and the challenges and opportunities in making progress are remarkably similar.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Palm Center, a San Francisco-based think-tank on sexual minorities in the military, hosted a day-long conference at the ACLU offices in D.C. featuring policy experts on LGBT-inclusive militaries as well as transgender service members from around the globe.
Their stories were intended to highlight the continued ban keeping transgender people from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. Even though “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, transgender people are still barred from military service under medical regulation.
Similar to the struggle against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the success of foreign militaries that have integrated transgender people into their ranks is serving as a potential model for the United States. And also like the early days during the fight against the military’s gay ban, fears about shared access to shower facilities, in addition to a perceived reluctance from senior leaders to move forward, are blocking the way.
At the conference, representatives who hail from foreign militaries talked about the integration of openly transgender people into their armed forces. Even though instances of harassment or objections to the service were acknowledged, the general sense was that militaries were able to allow transgender people to serve without impeding operations.
Maj. Alexandra Larsson, the first person to transition and serve in the Swedish Armed Forces, beamed with pride about being able to deliver a 60-minute presentation before Swedish intelligence, saying she has “the best job in the world.”
Based on her experience, Larsson told the Washington Blade the best argument for lifting the ban in the United States is the realization that transgender people already serve in the U.S. armed forces.
“In order to create an even more effective force, the best way, I think, is to make them available to be who they are and perform and to contribute to the U.S. armed forces as a professional individual,” Larsson said.
Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Lassaline, who reviews social policy for Canadian Forces in the Directorate of Human Rights & Diversity, emphasized that “training, training, training” is responsible for creating an environment favorable to transgender inclusion in the military.
Some countries — such as the United Kingdom and Sweden — never had outright bans on transgender people serving (the ban repealed 15 years ago in Britain affected only gay people). Instead, those countries experienced greater inclusion through the adoption of nationwide non-discrimination laws and policies.
Squadron Leader Sarah Maskell, who promotes equality and diversity in the British Royal Air Force, told the Blade the “openness” withrespect to transgender service helps creates a more combat effective force for the United Kingdom.
“They put their personal perspectives in their diversity of thinking, so you don’t just get a standard vanilla-flavor of decision-making,” Maskell said. “You get people bringing their cultural specifics, you get people bringing their relationship views. You get the whole person; they bring their whole selves to work. There’s no double life.”
The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, which is based in The Netherlands, distributed at the conference its 2013 report commissioned by the Dutch Military of Defense on the LGBT-inclusivenesss of militaries across the globe. The United States ranked No. 40 out of 103.
Landon Wilson, a sailor who was booted from the U.S. Navy earlier this year for being transgender, told the Blade foreign militaries with successful transgender policies are a good example for the United States.
“We’re hearing a lot of stories from foreign militaries who our are big allies,” Wilson said. “So, these are the countries that we serve beside, that we go to war with. And to know that they’re implementing policies that have been in place for 15 years, we need to catch up to that, and it shows that it’s possible.”
An estimated 15,500 transgender people are serving in silence in the U.S. military because of the policy that bars them from being open about their gender identity, according to a May report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The stories that some of these U.S. service members told at the forum were different than the experiences of their overseas counterparts.
Capt. Jacob Eleazer, a transgender member of the Kentucky National Guard, said he’s in a state of “limbo” regarding his status in the military.
After he came out as trans to his commander in February, a request for resignation was filed on his behalf. Eleazer said he was sent to medical evaluation, where he was asked if he was sexually assaulted as a child under the suggestion that, despite established medical opinion to the contrary, that may have caused him to be transgender.
Eleazer’s potential resignation was later rescinded on behalf of his commanding officer, whom Eleazer said put her career in jeopardy by sticking her neck out for him. Despite these difficulties, Eleazer said he wants to continue military service.
“Even though I identify as male … I’m a soldier first,” Eleazer said.
Despite models for transgender service in other countries, anti-transgender forces in the United States are already at work to preserve the status quo.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center of Military Readiness, was quoted in an Associated Press article last month as saying the prospects of openly transgender service “is putting an extra burden on men and women in the military that they certainly don’t need and they don’t deserve.”
Many of the arguments made against openly transgender service, including fears of service members having to shower in shared facilities with transgender comrades, are the same arguments opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” made years ago during the legislative process to repeal the law.
Kristin Beck, a transgender former Navy SEAL who transitioned after leaving the service, utterly dismissed the notion that service members would have a problem.
“I want to work with professionals; I don’t want to work with Beavis and Butthead,” Beck said.
The Obama administration has been slow to push for a change in the policy.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said during an interview in May the ban on transgender service should “continually” be reviewed, but five months later, a Pentagon official confirmed to the Blade last week no review has been ordered.
And although the White House said at the time it backs Hagel’s efforts in reviewing the policy, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest last week deferred to the Pentagon for a status update on its “ongoing review.” Earnest said he wasn’t sure if President Obama would call for an end to the ban before the end of his administration, but more broadly said his boss believes equality “makes our armed forces stronger.”
Allyson Robinson, policy director for the LGBT military group SPARTA and an attendee at the conference, said leadership is necessary at senior levels of the Pentagon to bring change.
“My understanding is that the secretary views his comments as of last May about the need for review as a promise — a promise to the nation and a promise to these service members,” Robinson said. “It’s important that we be asking, ‘Mr. Secretary, when are you going to make good on this promise?”
Although the Pentagon doesn’t seem at this time to be moving on the issue, a handful of lawmakers have already spoken out in favor of openly transgender service.
Reps. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) have all endorsed openly transgender service, and a spokesperson for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the Blade last week she also favors allowing transgender people to serve openly in the U.S. military.
Beck told the Blade all that’s necessary to ensure the United States joins other countries that have successfully implemented openly transgender service is leadership from defense officials.
“There’s no obstacle and there’s no argument that makes sense against having transgender people,” Beck said. “So, there’s no barriers. All it’s going to take is somebody up there within the Department of the Defense at the Pentagon to really step up and say, ‘This is it.'”
In all, the path ahead for transgender service is remarkably similar to the path for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The Palm Center’s Aaron Belkin predicts that the ban on transgender service will meet the same fate as the military’s gay ban.
“Both policies are about trying to squeeze a social judgment into a phony argument about military effectiveness,” Belkin said. “In this case, those who don’t like the policy don’t like trans people, but instead of just being honest about that, just like in ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ they try to conceal their arguments in military effectiveness, this time not unit cohesion, but medical readiness.”
But there is one significant difference between “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the trans ban: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a law and required action from either Congress or the courts to be stricken from the books; the ban on transgender service is a regulation that could be changed at any time by senior officials.
Belkin said the ease with which the policy could be changed makes apparent stagnation and remarks from the White House deferring to the Pentagon all the more baffling.
“Can you imagine if the Post Office had a rule in place that said we are going to fire all Chinese postal delivery people, and the White House said, ‘Yeah, just ask the Post Office about that,'” Belkin said. “That is not leadership.”