Will Trans Servicemembers Be as Controversial as the Bathroom Issue?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A transgender reader, Diane, has a simple and persuasive reply to the “woman who was exposed to a male using the wrong swimming pool changing room”:

I’m a male-to-female transsexual, post-op for 20+ years. I used women’s facilities during my pre-op days, but I worked hard to hide male genitalia. The goal for most of us is to live and be socially recognized as a member of the opposite sex. To that end, we go to great, very expensive lengths to fit in with social expectations of masculinity or femininity, as appropriate. Exposing our non-blendy selves is not what we intend.

For the record, I’d find a male exposing himself within “women's space,” whether intentional or not, to be worthy of whatever social stigmatization he gets.

Diane quickly follows up:

Dang! My bad for writing before I saw the Germaine Greer video you posted [in which Greer respectfully asserts that transgender women are “not women”]. First off, Germaine Greer rocks! She’s entitled to her opinion and should receive the honorary doctorate she so richly deserves.

I knew by the age of 3 that I’d rather be female. I didn’t understand the desire, and my mother made it very clear that I was a boy, that I’d never be a girl. In the late 1940s and 1950s, my survival depended on accepting the privileges of male childhood that were never extended to my female siblings. So from that perspective I was socialized as male, which means I’m not really the woman Ms. Greer expects. I accept that fact. But at the age of 70, I’m not going to march down Main Street wearing a sandwich board, declaring my trans-status.

Within the transgender community, my experience is similar to the norm. The LGB community needed people who were willing to push the boundaries that started the social conversation about homosexuality that resulted in mostly legal equality (discrimination exists despite SCOTUS rulings), making them mainstream. Transpeople will achieve social equality because of those willing to be public about their identity. [On Thursday] DoD removed the restrictions on military service. The more we’re in the public eye, the closer we get to acceptance.

Chris, thanks for the series on the debate. The anti-science absolutists will be on the wrong side of history.

This next reader, Frank (from the comments section on the DoD post I linked to above), is also on the wrong side of history—when it comes to trans servicemembers:

Transgender people should not be allowed into the military. They shouldn’t be victimized or made to feel bad about themselves, but introducing emotionally unstable and in-crisis people into a high-stress, high-stakes environment is an awful idea.

Another reader responds to Frank:

Your concerns are reasonable. I do believe that you would not only limit transgender people, but any person, who demonstrates they might not be able to handle a high-stress, high-stakes (literally life-or-death) environment. But the piece in The Atlantic left out a key detail that may alleviate some of those concerns. From the Military Times: “Prospective recruits who have undergone medical treatment associated with gender transition such as gender reassignment surgery or hormone  therapy will require a doctor’s approval to certify they have been stable in their preferred gender for at least 18 months.” Ostensibly this mostly focuses on mental and emotional stability. While it is an extra requirement compared to the average Joe trying to join the military, it is a very reasonable assumption to make.

If you’d like to tackle that aspect of transgender rights—open service in the military—please email your response to hello@theatlantic.com. One aspect of that debate I’m curious about is the military’s obligation, if any, to pay for the various medical procedures involved with a gender transition. An April 2016 video from Shane Ortega—one of the few openly trans servicemembers before the ban was repealed—addresses some of these medical issues:

Update from a reader, Tony Chen:

The military medical system would almost certainly refer transgender patients off-base for transition-related care. It will cause a problem in need of address for soldiers stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, or Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where a provider specializing in gender dysphoria may not be available for hundreds of miles. But I don’t doubt the military will work through that, likely on an individual basis with the effected patient, involving “maintenance” level care until transfer to an installation with a specialist facility nearby is feasible.

Overall the approach seems reasonable. Much of this will have to be tailored to the situation of the individual soldier and his or her command. They seem to recognize that.

Another reader, Andy Hall, is also optimistic:

As an organization, I have more confidence in the military’s ability to adapt to changes like this than just about any other public institution. That doesn't mean it will be easy, but it will happen. It’s common rhetoric that the military shouldn’t be involved in “social experimentation,” but it’s actually been at the forefront in many of these contentious issues, at least since the U.S. Army began enlisting African Americans into regular Army units on July 1, 1863.

As another reader puts it, “Being a dictatorial institution with a top-down leadership model does have its perks.”