For Transgendered Soldiers, Don't Ask Don't Tell Carries On

Gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the military. But changing gender is still seen as a sign of mental illness -- and a reason for dismissal.

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A 2009 rally calls for the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The policy was repealed in 2011, but transgender servicemen and women continue to be discharged from the military. (Reuters)

On an afternoon in January 1998, Monica Helms walked into a building in Phoenix, Arizona, where she lay her reapplication papers on the counter in front of her and waited for the reaction she knew was coming.

She had been a member of her hometown's chapter of the United States Submarine Veterans since around 1980, but not under the name "Monica." Back when she joined, she'd been a man, as all submariners had been at the time, and was unconditionally accepted into a select group within the military. But now, dressing full-time as a woman and six months into the process of becoming physically female, this routine reapplication quickly became more complicated.

The chapter president called up the national organization, which bounced the problem right back to him, saying it was a local issue. So the Phoenix group of about a dozen tried to push her into a generic veterans' organization for women. She said no. They asked if they could list her as her former name, with "Monica" in parentheses. No.

After months of this, she called the national chairman, who said that if Phoenix wouldn't let her back in, she could rejoin as an at-large member; after all, the only two requirements for admission were an honorable discharge and prior work on a submarine. Monica registered and asked her hometown group to vote on whether they wanted to see her at meetings. They did.

U.S. Submarine Veterans is now a coed group, and Monica, 61, swells with pride when she says she was the first woman to join. She only wishes this kind of inclusion were the norm for transgender people who are currently serving in the armed forces.

***

Monica is the president of a tiny organization called Transgender Veterans of America. The group has made receiving medical care at veterans organizations a much more pleasant experience for many transgender vets, but the situation for their active-duty counterparts remains the same -- if the military finds out, you're gone.

The armed forces were applauded for promoting equality when Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed in 2010. But transgender military members were still excluded, and now that the gay community has achieved equality in the armed forces, they feel that their previous momentum has slowed.

There are around 140,000 transgender veterans in the U.S., says Dr. Gary Gates of the Williams Institute, a research organization dedicated to law and public policy in sexual orientation and gender identity. He estimates that there are roughly 700,000 transgender people in the country, and a recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey showed that 20 percent of them have been a part of the military at some point. (In contrast, only 10 percent of the general population has served.)

As long as mental health professionals see being transgendered as a disorder, says Dr. Spack, "the military will be the last to budge."

Despite this, if the U.S. armed forces discover a transgender individual in their ranks, he or she is often dishonorably discharged -- in contrast with the United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, and other nations where they can serve freely. Being transgender, according to the U.S. military, is a psychological disorder, and it renders an individual unfit for service.

There are two general reasons why the military won't allow transgender people to serve, says Norman Spack of Boston Children's Hospital, where he cofounded the gender management service clinic, the first to treat pubescent transgender people in the Western hemisphere. First, members of the military don't want to be in a professional environment with anyone who is gender variant. Second, they don't know how to classify a transgender person with respect to housing, rooming, or whatever else.

Which is to say that many military members are afraid of what they don't understand.

"Many people don't necessarily come from very large cities or other parts of the country where there will not just be more understanding, but more tolerance of this sort of thing," Spack said.

The struggle for equal rights for the transgender community in the armed forces will inevitably be compared to the effort to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, but there are key differences.

A main concern for transgender veterans is that they simply don't have enough numbers to drive a policy change. It's estimated that transgender people make up 0.6 percent of the 21.8 million US veterans. That's barely one in 200.

While overcoming the math may turn out to be a major obstacle, the transgender community also has a huge advantage that the gay community did not -- they don't have to deal with Congress. The policy barring transgender individuals from the armed forces is just that; a policy, not a law.

But Michael Segal, a neurologist who is also heavily involved with the military through the Advocates for ROTC program, cautions that a 180 degree change might not be the way to go.

"Even a lot of transgender people will say that they don't think someone who's actively going through a transition at that time should be in the military," Segal said. "I don't think you're going to get the same pressure for an all-or-nothing thing."

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Colin Daileda is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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