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.

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 The policy was repealed in 2011, but transgender servicemen and women continue to be discharged from the military.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The armed forces were applauded for promoting equality when Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed in 2010.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."

Whether or not the fight is for a complete change of policy, though, the transgender community's struggle for equal rights in the military may begin far away from the armed forces.


Monica's fight didn't begin with the U.S. Submarine Veterans.

"I do recall praying [to God] at age five to turn me into a girl," said Monica, who doesn't want to reveal her given name.

But, growing up, she wasn't always preoccupied with the thought of being a different gender. She played with toy guns, thought cowboys were cool, and liked things boys like -- such as girls. When she was a teenager, Monica was nearly consumed with the idea of losing her virginity. Typical boy stuff.

In 1970, she joined the Navy just like her father, spent much of her time on a submarine without issue, then left around a decade later and started to cross-dress more and more.

During a trip to San Francisco, one of her male friends pulled her aside and revealed to Monica that he was going to become a woman. "And all the stuff [he] was saying was putting the pieces of the puzzle in my mind back together," Monica said. "It was like [he] was talking about me. That is a definite hard point in my life when I realized I needed to transition."

In 1987, Monica told her wife, who already hated the cross-dressing. Monica told her 15 and 13-year-old boys, the youngest of whom resented her for years afterward. She told her parents, who suddenly wouldn't let her drive to their home, the one Monica grew up in, five miles down the road.

After her transition, the world around Phoenix seemed much too small. She moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and co-founded Transgender Veterans of America, bringing the private battles of many like herself out into the public.


Transgender veterans don't have many champions outside their own small circle. Their lone institutional defender may be Brown University, which recently became the only Ivy League school not to allow ROTC (and therefore the military) back on campus, insisting, in a letter signed by former university president Ruth Simmons, "that the policy barring transgender individuals from military service must be changed."

People at Brown who agree with Simmons often cite the school's nondiscrimination policy. If the university's policy is at odds with the military's rules, why should it allow recruiting on campus?

But Segal and others believe the equal rights argument is something of a ruse for a liberal school that just doesn't want to deal with the military. Harvard, Yale, and Columbia all allowed ROTC back on campus recently, even though they all have nondiscrimination policies similar to Brown's. They did so hoping that a dialogue would bring about change more quickly than exclusion.

"If you had a bunch of faculty from Harvard two years ago petitioning about changing a policy of this sort, people wouldn't have listened," Segal said. But now he believes that by engaging the armed forces, Harvard medical school may find the military more willing to listen to its opinions and expertise.

Unfortunately for transgender veterans, these arguments could remain largely irrelevant for years, if not decades to come. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which determines what the medical community views as an official mental problem, still considers being transgender a psychiatric disease.

Spack wholeheartedly disagrees with the manual's assessment. That said, he "can't blame the military community [for excluding transgender people] when the mental health community has it on the DSM." As long as mental health professionals see being transgendered as a disorder, he says, "the military will be the last to budge."

Kenneth Zucker of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, has studied psychosexual disorders in children and adolescents for over 30 years, and is the chairman of the American Psychiatric Association Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders work group, the body that decides, among other things, whether or not transgender people should be considered mentally ill. He vehemently believes that they should.

In an NPR report from 2008, Zucker dismissed the argument that being transgender is a product of the person's biological makeup, calling such reasoning "astonishingly naïve and simplistic." He told the New York Times that he advocates making kids feel more at home in their biological genders. The NPR report described Zucker counseling the parents of a biological boy who believed he was a girl. He told them that the boy, six years of age at the start of "treatment," should no longer be allowed to play with girls, have dolls, or pretend to be a female character. If transgender veterans want equal rights in the military, this may be the man they'll have to persuade. (Over the course of six weeks, he didn't return several calls and emails.)

Even if the people who preside over the manual decide to change their views, Spack cautions against a lot of optimism. He points out that homosexuality wasn't considered a psychiatric disease after 1973, and it took decades beyond that for the armed forces to warm up to the idea of equality for gay people.


It took years, too, for Monica's mom to accept she had a third daughter, for her siblings to acknowledge they had another sister, and for her sons to understand they had two moms.

Monica's dad died before they reconnected. But, eventually, Monica's mom started calling her "Monica." She says her older brother treats her differently depending on the woman he's with at the time. Hey, it could be worse, she thinks. Her sisters have been fine with her transition for a while, and, a week or two ago, Monica was gratified when her youngest son called just to talk about the new house he and his wife bought.

On December 1, she'll have lived a quarter of her life as a woman, something she considers a huge milestone, both physically and psychologically.

"As soon as I transitioned, I found my voice," Monica said. "I started standing up for myself, and it became basically a drug, some might say, the idea that you fight for equality. It was intoxicating to be able to open my mouth and contradict some of these people who had issues with us, and to stand up for what I believed in."