This morning, we all woke up to see a major shift in U.S. Defense Department policy unleashed via our president's Twitter:
It feels a bit like being broken up with via text, but since it is a presidential statement, it's more or less official. Instead of guessing what it's actually like for transgender people in the military, we reached out to Emma Shinn, a trans woman and former Marine Corps platoon sergeant with extensive combat experience in Fallujah. We also spoke to several other current active and reserve duty trans soldiers. They told us ...
In the wake of the president's tweeted statements this morning, a lively debate over trans folks in the military has cropped up across the internet. One justification for the ban boils down to "There just aren't that many of them!"
It's true that transgender people aren't a huge chunk of the military. But it's also true that they serve at a higher rate than pretty much any other demographic. Generally speaking, only 10 percent of Americans have served in the armed forces. But studies show that 20 percent of all trans-identified Americans have joined up. And another study found that number increases to 30 percent for trans women -- around triple that of the general population. To Emma, these numbers make total sense:
"I would say that a lot of people prior to transitioning feel the need to prove themselves as their birth gender, and especially for transgender women, that includes doing stereotypically masculine activities. Speaking personally, I know the Marine Corps was very attractive to me because I wanted to prove myself as a guy. Not only was I a guy, I was an uber guy. Not only as enlisted infantry but as a sergeant, I felt that would help assuage the disconnect."
Emma's experience isn't uncommon. In fact, this was studied and written about way back in 1988 by Air Force psychiatrist George Brown (now an associate chair for VA affairs). Being written a few decades ago, the study uses outdated terminology to discuss transgender people, but it shows that this phenomenon has been around for some time. He surveyed the higher rate of enlistment among trans individuals and called it a "flight into hypermasculinity" -- an attempt to suppress the confusion associated with gender dysphoria through negative reinforcement and work that's seen as "macho." From that perspective, the all-encompassing live-where-you-work military path seems like a pretty great escape. It's also often viewed as a good option for high school graduates who want a fighting chance at a decent career and benefits, and don't mind getting the hell out of dodge to do it. That's not a bad deal for a population that is at much greater risk of becoming homeless.
As it turns out, the military is the single largest employer of trans people in the country. But since this is an employer whose main product is "protecting the nation" and "watching over all the bombs," it IS important to ask the question: Are trans people able to do their jobs, even with the hurdle of transitioning? Well, it turns out that's not as big of an issue as people fear.
Jerry is a transgender man serving on active duty in the Navy. He pointed out that, first, the military isn't exactly in the business of paying for extensive surgery. "Military policy is to at least cover pharmaceutical and mental healthcare. Anything else requires serious motivation and luck ... I paid for my top surgery alone, when there are thousands of guys posting [on Reddit] every day how they didn't pay a dime for their surgery, and they're, like, baristas. (Nothing against baristas, it's just insane that I've gotten PTSD as a souvenir from overseas deployments and can't get something that someone who goes home every night smelling like delicious coffee and pastries can get with a fraction of the effort.)"
He points out that if a soldier does transition while on active duty, they're bound by very strict rules as to when they can do it: "Commanders are less likely to approve you getting surgery if you have to deploy -- which makes sense, and should be the case."
Transitioning can have a significant impact on a soldier's physical capabilities. Harriet transitioned while serving in the National Guard, and she definitely noticed a difference: "When I started hormones, my strength and speed both changed considerably! Hormones affect everyone differently to a degree, but higher testosterone absolutely makes it easier to build and maintain muscle, and unless I wanted to live and sleep in a gym, I simply wasn't going to maintain the kind of fitness levels I had as a 'guy.'" Harriet shared her Army Physical Fitness Test Scorecard. Overall, her run time for two miles has increased by about six minutes, and she did significantly fewer push-ups and sit-ups, although her overall scores are "respectable, but nothing spectacular."
But the changes brought on by transition cut both ways. Jerry, our active-duty Navy trans man, said, "Exercising has gotten loads easier! I rarely train for the running part of the physical fitness test now, and I pass just fine. In the past, if I didn't run every day, my scores would be lower than average. I can lift more, I can run faster, push-ups are a breeze. I'm training for a badge run competition called the 1,000 Lbs Club: bench, squat, deadlift must equal 1,000 pounds. Females have the 600 Lbs Club. Without any serious training, I've already matched the 600-pound standard. One downside, however, is the weight gain. I've easily gained 27 pounds since starting [testosterone]. Can't lose it -- I've tried!"
The most important fact to note about soldiers transitioning while on active duty is that it's incredibly rare. This RAND study estimates between 25 and 130 surgeries per year among active-duty personnel. Between 10 and 130 soldiers per year could experience "reduced deployability." There are currently more than 50,000 active-duty soldiers who are undeployable. The vast majority of these soldiers have short-term injuries, like torn ACLs from a basketball game gone bad. If you're worried about military readiness, pick-up football games are probably a more pressing threat than transgender people.
Trump's announcement makes it seem like transgender people are causing the mighty pillars of the military institution to crumble. But Emma said in regards to trans people in the military, "There wasn't an impact on readiness or lethality ... it was a non-story until President Trump made the story today. When he said they're a disruption -- that was the word he used in his tweet -- he is the one who is disrupting the morale and combat effectiveness of our services by basically throwing away 15,000 very trained, highly capable warriors ..."
Our sources have noted some difficulties -- about the paperwork involved in name changes, some weird military policies on when other soldiers should use a different pronoun for them, and s**t like Harriet's experience here: "I was out at a battalion training exercise, and I had been isolated as far as lodging is concerned -- they're like, 'Well, the soldier isn't male enough to stay with all the male soldiers, and we don't know if she's really female,' so I was set by myself. And that was pretty crushing."
The military doesn't change on a dime. But that's not to say they weren't adapting. The Department of Defense published a whole manual on it, which includes some pretty woke passages on gender identity, such as: "Sex and gender are different. Sex is whether a person is male or female through their biology. Gender is the socially defined roles and characteristics of being male and female associated with that sex."
And while Harriet dealt with predictable bullshit, she also encountered supremely understanding officers: "In my military mental health evaluation, one of the things the mental health officer actually said was that they needed to act quickly to change my name and gender, because I was so far progressed and they didn't want to cause severe detrimental mental health effects or stressors on an otherwise well-functioning soldier."
On a personal level, all of the transgender soldiers we spoke to reported widespread support from their comrades. When Harriet was kept from lodging with her fellow female soldiers after coming out, they stepped up to make things right: "All of the other women soldiers that were there at the time -- some of them didn't know me at all -- actually got together of their own accord and went to leadership and said, 'This is wrong. She belongs with us. She's one of our sisters.' It was really, really awesome."
For their part, our sources haven't been subjected to the kind of we'll-get-you-while-you're-asleep-in-your-barrack boys' club punishment we might expect from Hollywood's depiction of intolerant military culture. That's not to say it doesn't happen, and there are still a lot of soldiers (41 percent) who don't support transgender service people, but Jerry thinks many of those folks just haven't actually met any out trans soldiers. He explained, "I've been stealth for a year now, and four people know at my command. These guys are proudly conservative, and each of them have treated me with dignity and respect. One of them was a former cholo, and now senior enlisted, so mad respect to him. So when I see someone on social media comment about "tranny this" and "shim that," I know I can change their perspective, because I've done it four times on base already. It's all about patience and education. The professionalism of our force never fails to surprise me. In the end, we're all brothers and sisters in arms, and we should want what's best for each other."
Harriet actually feels safer with her comrades than she does out in the normal world: "One of the safest places that I feel I can really not have to worry is among other soldiers. I don't know if it's just because of me personally, that I'm lucky enough to be not super tall and sort of fit kind of what people expect a woman to look like ... Or if it was my prior reputation? I've been with the same unit the entire seven years I've been in the Guard. I think having all those personal relationships already really helped ... I feel less safe off-base than I do on."
Emma is no longer in the military. But she is a lawyer, and most of her clients are soldiers, so she still spends a lot of time in and around the military. After she came out, she noted: "I would say 99 percent of my friends, my subordinates, and even my mentors in my senior marines who were in charge of me have been unbelievably supportive. Y'know, I have everyone from general officers to lance corporals saying, 'I'm glad that you came out' -- using the correct pronouns, using the correct name. All of that was really supportive."
She's rather pissed about the president's newly tweeted policy: "I have friends who are still on active duty, and they are extremely fearful, not only for their careers but also for their physical safety -- not necessary from their service members, but from members of the public who may see this as carte blanche to discriminate and assault transgender people ... I think that what the president did today was callously disrespectful of the dedication our service members have provided -- especially the transgender service members. I think he was reckless today with the lives of transgender service members."
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