The mood at the annual Pride celebration at the Pentagon was celebratory, but the split was palpable between advances for gay, lesbian and bisexual troops compared to where their transgender comrades stand.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter delivered the keynote address to service members and civilian workers, noting the changes in the armed forces after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“Four years after the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ – following years and years of gay and lesbian service members having to hide who they are – today we take pride in how they’re free to serve their country openly,” Carter said. “Because we believe in getting to a place where no one serves in silence, and where we treat all our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with the dignity, and the respect, that they deserve.”
But other than a one-word reference in the initial part of his remarks, Carter made no reference to transgender people in the U.S. military, who are banned from serving openly.
Despite “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, transgender people are still barred from service because of medical regulation. DOD Instruction 6130.03 calls for separation of service members who have undergone gender reassignment or have “psychosexual conditions” that include transvestitism or transsexualism.
Carter announced a policy change to include the words “sexual orientation” as a protected class in the Military Equal Opportunity Program, the non-discrimination policy for the U.S. military. The Blade first reported weeks ago the change was coming.
“I’m proud to announce that the Department of Defense has completed the process for updating its Military Equal Opportunity policy to include sexual orientation – ensuring that the department, like the rest of the federal government, treats sexual orientation-based discrimination the same way it treats discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, age, and national origin,” Carter said. “And I’m very proud of the work that the military services have put into this over the last several months. Because discrimination of any kind has no place in America’s armed forces.”
But gender identity wasn’t included as part of the change. A Pentagon spokesperson didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on why trans service members were excluded from the policy change. A change in the Military Equal Opportunity policy wouldn’t undo the transgender military ban, according to the Transgender Legal Defense Fund.
Carter delivered the speech amid numerous developments on the issue of transgender service in the military. Just this week, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution at its annual policy-making meeting finding “no medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals from service in the U.S. military.”
Last week, the Air Force announced it was joining the Army in raising the authority to discharge transgender airmen because of their gender identity. As a result of the change, a decision to discharge a transgender airman must be sent to the Secretary of the Air Force Personnel Council for recommendation, then to the Air Force Review Boards Agency director for a decision. Self-identification as transgender won’t automatically generate involuntary separation and recommendation for discharge must be supported by a report of evaluation by a psychiatrist or Ph.D.-level clinical psychologist, according to the service.
But even though Carter and the White House have previously expressed openness to the idea of transgender service, no department-wide change to the ban has been announced, despite repeated calls for a review and ultimately an end to the prohibition.
LGBT advocates at the event criticized Carter for failing to address the issue of transgender service in the military.
Sue Fulton, president of the LGBT military group SPARTA, said the defense secretary missed an opportunity to shed light on the experience of transgender troops serving in silence.
“Words about inclusion without actions that are long overdue are empty,” Fulton said. “The secretary of defense had a unique opportunity today given all the events in the last four days to address trans service, to say something, and ignored thousands of transgender service members who are not being included. I was very disappointed.”
Stephen Peters, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, had a similar take, noting that Carter’s remarks were “disappointing, especially for the estimated 15,500 transgender service members currently serving in silence.”
Another attendee at the event was Sheri Swokowski, a transgender veteran who served as an infantry soldier for nearly 34 years before she transitioned after retirement.
Swokwoski wore a female Army Service Uniform and an infantry gold-crossed rifle insignia, intending her attire to be a statement against the military’s transgender policy. As the Blade previously reported, Swokowski’s dress uniform stood out because women at this time aren’t permitted in the infantry.
“I’d like to think that the people in the building have noticed,” Swokowski said. “I was sitting just a little ways away from the secretary of defense and many of the top leaders in the Defense Department.”
But Swokowski also said she didn’t think Carter did enough to address the barriers facing transgender service members.
“I was disappointed,” Swokowski said. “He mentioned the word once, but words don’t equate to actions, and that’s what we’re looking for. We have 15,000 individuals out there that are waiting for something to happen. It’s in their best interest, in their health interests and it’s in the readiness interest of the country to put this all together and figure it out. We’ve done harder things in the past.”
In a panel discussion after Carter’s speech, one of the speakers was Amanda Simpson, executive director of the U.S. Army Office of Energy Initiatives and the first female openly transgender appointee to a U.S. administration in history.
“I don’t have this position because I’m transgender,” Simpson said. “I was not not appointed because I’m transgender. I’m serving because I happen to be the best person to do the job.”
Simpson, who’s able to serve as an appointee because she’s working on the civilian side, not in the armed forces, received the biggest applause lines during her remarks, especially after she recalled losing jobs after transitioning years ago and ultimately finding stability.
“I took those skills that I learned in my transition and put them into my leadership style, and that’s why I’m a good leader,” Simpson said. “And so, it’s not that I’m just the same as everybody else. I have unique experiences; I’ve literally looked at life from both sides.”
Despite discontent with inaction on transgender service, openly gay service members during the panel discussion beamed with pride about serving in the military while being open about their sexual orientation after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
Maj. Alasdair Mackay, who serves as a logistics operations officer for Marine Corps Installation, pointed out his spouse in the audience — who happened to be HRC’s Peters — saying times have changed since the difficulties of serving under the military’s gay ban.
“I portrayed a character and a leader that was not authentic, at least not fully authentic and was not fully truthful, particularly in my off-duty hours,” MacKay said. “This, of course, affected my relationship with my Marines. It weakened my professional relationship with my Marines. That is not the way I wanted to be as a Marine officer, and certainly not the way I wanted to lead a professional career.”
Emceeing the event was Brig. Gen. Randy Taylor, who took the occasion to give thanks to his spouse Lucas. Over their 18-year relationship, Taylor said to support his moves, his spouse subjugated his own career.
Upon announcing the gay-only policy change in the U.S. military, Carter expressed a vague commitment to renewal that may suggest further changes — including those for transgender service members — are on the horizon.
“The Department of Defense has made a lasting commitment to living the values we defend – to treating everyone equally – because we need to be a meritocracy,” Carter said. “We have to focus relentlessly on our mission, which means the thing that matters most about a person is what they can contribute to national defense. This is a commitment we must continually renew.”
The event began with the presentation of the colors and the National Anthem, which was performed by the Rock Creek Singers, an ensemble of 34 members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C.