Washington – The Pentagon’s announcement Monday that it intends to lift its prohibition on transgender people serving in the military still leaves transgender troops and veterans facing a variety of challenges, ranging from health care and discrimination to being allowed to choose a uniform that corresponds to their gender identity.
In announcing the change in policy, Defense Secretary Ash Carter established a working group that will take six months to consider the legal, administrative and medical technicalities of opening the military to transgender service members. During that period, openly transgender people still will be barred from military service.
But the upcoming policy change almost certainly will make it more difficult to discharge the estimated 15,500 transgender people already serving.
“It’s a good starting point for those that are already in,” said Evan Young, a transgender veteran and president of the Transgender American Veterans Association. “But anyone who is qualified should be able to join. Hopefully, that will come in time.”
Young spent 14 years in the Army, rising to the rank of major before retirement. He would have liked to continue serving but was pushed out because of his gender identity, he said. His last duty station was at the University of Michigan as a recruiting officer for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, where he started his transition from a woman to a man, the gender he identifies as.
“I love the sense of family and mission, that we’re all working together,” Young said. “But throughout my military career I was in the closet. All my life I’ve been hiding and I felt I never could be close to my military family at all.”
Young’s story is not unique. When Gene Silvestri joined the Army in 2002 as a female and a lesbian, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in place. Silvestri, now a transgender man, said he immediately felt the effects of the ban.
“I felt pretty much like I was a sore thumb,” he said. “I did whatever I could to stay under the radar.”
He faced intense harassment, and drill sergeants berated him about everything from how his breath smelled to how his hair was cut. Some of these comments were a byproduct of the military environment, Silvestri said, as drill sergeants often abuse their power. He suspects others were intended to be personally degrading.
Those slurs led to the “perfect storm,” Silvestri said. Distracted as a sergeant berated him during a training exercise, he fell 50 feet and suffered serious injuries, leading to his medical discharge in 2003. Some of his superiors continued to berate him, saying he had hurt himself on purpose so he could continue to live off the government for the rest of his life.
Silvestri, now veterans affairs coordinator for the American Military Partner Association, said he often fields calls from transgender veterans and their families asking about transgender exclusions under TRICARE, which provides health care to active-duty and retired military members and their families.
TRICARE often denies coverage to transgender individuals for procedures that it covers for non-transgender individuals, such as breast implants and reductions and hysterectomies. Gender reassignment surgery – colloquially known as a “sex change” – also is not covered and cannot be performed at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.
This has been a source of difficulty for some veterans. For many people, having a “body that matches your mind” is extremely important, Young said.
He mentioned Jess Shipps, a transgender Air Force veteran who recently committed suicide. Young said Shipps left a suicide note in which she said she was depressed at not being able to find a job and afford basic living essentials, let alone transition-related health care.
Both Young and Silvestri stressed that not every transgender individual will undergo surgery or hormone therapy.
“Some people don’t want either, they just want the correct uniform to wear and to be called by the correct name and pronouns,” Silvestri said.
Silvestri said lifting the ban won’t end the discussion about transgender troops but instead will spark conversation about new topics, uniform regulations, grooming practices and housing assignments.
Young agreed but noted that 18 other countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, already allow transgender people to serve.
Since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed in 2011, the Pentagon has been under pressure to lift the ban on transgender service. Pressure increased after Carter announced sexual orientation, but not gender identity, would be added to the military’s nondiscrimination policy in June.
The updated program “protected the L, B and G, but leaves the T out,” Young said, referring to the common LGBT acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. He said he assumed gender identity would be added soon, though the Pentagon has not indicated if that will be the case. The Pentagon’s press office did not return requests for comment on potential updates to TRICARE, uniform policies, grooming practices and troop housing.
The six-month gap before the implementation of the new transgender service policy also could be used to rewrite Army medical fitness policy that lists transsexualism – physical transition from one sex to another – as a personality condition rendering an individual unfit for service.
A June 8 statement from the American Medical Association said there was no medical reason for barring transgender persons from military service and they should be entitled to full medical benefits. Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality executive director, applauded the statement.
“The growing consensus among military and civilian leaders and the medical community including, most recently, the American Medical Association, is that the regulations barring open transgender service have no place in a 21st century military,” she said.
Carter had hinted at removing the ban before, but Silvestri said he was in shock when he heard the news Monday morning.
“You have to relish in the little progresses that are made,” he said. “I kind of had an idea that it would happen in 2015. But I didn’t think it would be today.”