Featured on Wednesday as a major speaker at the annual Pentagon event celebrating Pride Month, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) took the opportunity to be markedly pointed about the newly implemented transgender military ban.
Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who lost both of her legs in the conflict, said “our loved ones can sleep more soundly” because of the estimated 14,700 transgender people currently in the armed forces as the Trump administration implements its ban.
“Keeping our nation as strong as it can possibly be means something to me as it does to you,” Duckworth said. “But the truth is, this president’s transgender ban will only do the opposite.”
Calling the ban “as heartless as it is dangerous,” the Illinois Democrat said the policy “will hamper troops’ morale and hurt readiness.”
“This ban wreaks the same kind of bigotry that once stood on us to be segregated by skin color, the same kind of narrow-mindedness to keep women out of combat and silenced gay service members,” Duckworth said. “They’re even using the same outdated, discredited excuses claiming that more diversity would lead to less unit cohesion — an argument that has been debunked time, after time, after time.”
Duckworth recalled the time she was wounded and said it speaks to importance of allowing all qualified individuals to serve in the armed forces.
“When I found myself sitting in that field, where we landed a couple hundred yards from where the bad guys were jumping in pickup trucks and headed toward us, and I was bleeding out in that aircraft, I didn’t care if the guys risking their lives to save me were gay, straight, transgender, black, white, male or female,” Duckworth said. “All that mattered was they had an American flag on their shoulder and they did not leave me behind.”
The official DOD event, which took place in the Pentagon courtyard, was the eighth annual event celebrating Pride at the Pentagon. As in each previous year, LGBT service members and civilians — as well as supporters — were in attendance at the event.
But this year’s celebration marked the first Pride celebration at the Pentagon after the Defense Department instated President Trump’s ban on transgender service members.
Before April, transgender people could enlist and serve openly in the military thanks to a policy change during the Obama administration. But under the new policy, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria disqualifies potential enlistees, and a diagnosis of gender dysphoria — with the exception of transgender people already serving in the armed forces — is cause for discharge.
Stuart Milk, an LGBT rights advocate and nephew of gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, was also critical of the transgender military ban in remarks at the event, but also was thankful to the military for defending the right to be critical.
“You can’t do what Sen. Duckworth just did, which is challenging the current administration’s really misguided policy change on trans service,” Milk said. “You couldn’t do that in Cuba, you couldn’t do that in North Korea, you couldn’t do that in China, you couldn’t do that in Venezuela, but we can do it now. Why? Because we defend our Constitution, and no one defends it stronger than the U.S. military.”
Milk also recalled the story of the Navy naming a destroyer after his uncle Harvey, who served in the Navy before he was discharged for being gay.
Despite a request from the Obama administration to change his uncle’s “less than honorable” discharge to an “honorable discharge” in time for the ceremony, Milk said he elected to have no change because he thought it would better serve as a reminder of the military’s anti-gay policy.
Recalling his review of the transcripts of Harvey Milk’s discharge proceedings, Stuart Milk drew a comparison to what was being said then to what is being said now as transgender military service is debated.
“Secretary of Navy [Ray] Mabus gave me — I had his DD-214 — but gave me the backup and 21 pages of interrogation and psychological analysis and these messages of breaking up unit cohesion,” Milk said. “It does seem a little bit familiar that these terms have been blasted for 40 years and 50 years.”
Another keynote speaker at the event was Wayne Monteith, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation and former brigadier general in the Air Force.
Monteith told the stories four openly gay individuals whom he said had shown a commitment to the country. One was an officer he knew years ago, whom he called “John” and was found to be gay, then harassed and discharged from the military. Monteith said this officer was patriotic in his service, but also hid a dark secret.
Monteith recalled facing a “momentary integrity crisis” when John asked him to pen a character reference on his behalf.
“I willingly did so because it seemed like the right thing to do,” Monteith said. “Strangely, it wasn’t long before I received my first actual career counseling. As I prepared to head out to alert one morning, my commanders pulled me aside and talked about my bright future and then suggested that I should be very cautious with my signature. The advice, while misplaced, seemed well meaning, but the implication was clear: support my friend or put my own career at risk.”
Monteith concluded he “signed and submitted the damn letter anyway, and my career appears to have turned out OK.”
“Make no mistake: We discharged a phenomenal officer who would have been a phenomenal commander one day, but not surprisingly, he went on to be successful in his civilian life,” Monteith said.
Another individual was an officer who outed himself as gay, another a gay volunteer in the Peace Corps who served with his daughter, and another was a gay officer who continued to serve to this day as a GS-15 employee in the federal government.
Although Monteith never directly addressed transgender military service, he did issue a warning that could apply to the policy.
“I’m here to advocate for so many who are shuttered in silence early in their military careers and to preserve the freedom and respect so many have died for in the past,” Monteith said. “And before we ever, ever consider taking a single step backwards, we need to remember how hard it was to get where are today.”
Each of the speakers also recognized the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, likening the bravery of those who participants to the bravery of LGBT people in uniform.
In attendance at the event were Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, Army Capt. Jennifer Peace, Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King — each of whom testified before the U.S. House earlier this year in the first ever congressional hearing on transgender military service. After the Pentagon Pride event, Peace went on stage and offered Milk her military challenge coin in recognition for his work on LGBT rights.
Fiona Dawson, director of the documentary “TransMilitary,” was also in attendance at the event and it was “absolutely amazing” Duckworth and others were able to speak so pointedly about transgender service.
“It demonstrates that we will ensure that all LGBT service members do have the equal right to serve our country,” Dawson said.