Guest Blogger

The History of SLDN and Transgender Service Members

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 29, 2008 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: bisexual, Calpernia Addams, Don't Ask Don't Tell, lesbian, military, Monica Helms, NCTE, sexual orientation, SLDN, soldiers, TAVA, transgender, transgender veterans, transsexual

Editors' note: TAVA president and frequent guest blogger Monica Helms describes the history and upcoming efforts for collaboration between transgender servicemembers and SLDN.

The year was 1993. Clinton was president. Gay, lesbian and bisexual people felt they finally had a friend in the White House. And, even though transgender people officially started the gay movement at the Stonewall Inn in 1969, they only began finding their voices in the equal rights movement in the early 1990's. They had very little visibility and vertically no credibility. We weren't on anyone's radar.

In that year, President Clinton wanted to fulfill a promise by making the US military safe for people, regardless of their sexual orientation. But it didn't turn out the way people wanted. The now infamous Don't Ask, Don't Tell law came into affect and it did not protect people in the military based on their sexual orientation, if that orientation was something other than straight. The law gave commanders a chance to hunt down gay, lesbian and bisexual service member in order to weed them out. Transgender military people didn't ask to be included, but included they were.

Shortly after that, a new LGB organization, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN,) formed for the express purpose of legally helping military personnel who have been targeted under DADT. They did a great job and helped thousands, but if a transgender person came to them, they could not help because they had no one who had any knowledge about their issue. Yet, trans people were targeted because the military thought they were gay.

My first experience with dealing with SLDN was back in 1999 when Private Barry Winchell was murdered at Ft. Campbell, KY. I just happen to catch a news story and when they showed Calpernia Addams, they called her Winchell's "Drag Queen lover." Even before Calpernia had any surgeries, one could easily tell she was a transsexual woman.

I called the club where Calpernia worked, but she had to call me back later. In our conversation, it came to light that the SLDN leaders at that time wanted to portray her as a "gay man" so they could push the problems with DADT. She told me that Barry was attracted to her femininity and not anything else about her. Barry Winchell was killed because he was dating a trans woman, but that somehow made him "gay" in the eyes of the other soldiers and in the eyes of SLDN back then.

In January 2003, the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) was formed to address the problems facing transgender veterans in the VA, but to also do what we could to help transgender service members who had problems while serving. We quickly came out saying that we opposed Don't Ask, Don't Tell to show our support for our gay, lesbian and bisexual brothers and sisters in arms. We had also heard stories of trans people being targeted under the law, so opposing it made sense as far as our mission was concerned.

After a short time, TAVA started getting requests to provide legal help because some trans services members were being targeted under DADT. The new people in charge of SLDN were more supportive, but pointed out that they still had no person in their ranks to take on this issue, even though these trans service members were accused of being gay. Later that changed when SLDN hired a transgender lawyer who not only began helping trans service members, but educated SLDN on the issues.

As time went on, the reasons for DADT lost all of their logic. Prominent high-ranking military people publicly came out opposing it, while polls showed Americans overwhelmingly supported its repeal. All of Europe allowed their LGB people to serve openly and even some allowed trans people to serve openly. The days of DADT were numbered.

SLDN saw that the conversation about DADT had ramped up tremendously and a new law was about to be introduced, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA) that was designed to repeal DADT. The law only had the words "sexual orientation" because that was the only words DADT used. SLDN realized they needed to speak to the transgender community to ensure them that the way the law was written was specifically to repeal DADT and not to exclude transgender people on purpose. Adding the words "gender expression and gender identity" into MREA made no sense and would confuse Congress people.

In 2006, SLDN, TAVA and National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) had a conversation about this very issue. SLDN didn't want to get angry calls and E-mails from transgender people when MREA was introduced and it only had the words "sexual orientation" in it. They wanted us to assure transgender people that the reason we were not mentioned in MREA was because DADT had nothing to do with "gender identity or gender expression."

In theory, they were correct about this, but in practice, the military continued targeting transgender people for being gay. In that meeting, I agreed to go along with SLDN's strategy, as did NCTE, because their logic was that if passed, MREA would help transgender people as well. The one person in the meeting who didn't want us to go along with this was TAVA's Vice President, Angela Brightfeather. She felt something was wrong but couldn't put her finger on it. She, like the rest of us, knew transgender people had been targeted under DADT, but we had no proof.

All of SLDN's Action Alerts and press releases stated that "gay, lesbian and bisexual service members are being adversely affected by DADT." They knew that transgender service members were being affected. TAVA knew it, too, but we kept our mouths shut so as not to rock the boat. Little did we know what the future held for us.

Fast forward to 2008 and TAVA began their Transgender Veterans Survey that lasted until May 1, 2008. The raw data from the survey made it absolutely clear that transgender people were being targeted just as much as LGB service members, with trans men being questioned about their sexual orientation at twice the rate as trans women. At that point, TAVA's stance changed on inclusion in MREA.

When Memorial Day came up, several people wrote articles on how much DADT has hurt our country's readiness by discharging many critical people needed in a time of war. The Department of Defense raised the age limit to the middle 40s. Criminals of all kinds were allowed to serve. People who could not get along socially and those with low aptitude scores were accepted, as long as they were straight. All the articles kept saying, DADT affects gay, lesbian and bisexual service members. I don't know how many times I responded to these articles using the data from the survey, but no one listened.

That all changed when the most prestigious institution in the country, The Palm Center, published the White Paper Report on the Transgender Veterans Survey. They lent credibility to our claims that transgender people can no longer be left out of the DADT discussion.

Here's what The Palm Center wrote in the "Research Implications and Recommendations" section at the end of the White Paper Report:

Survey responses make clear that transgender service members are negatively affected by the current DADT policy, even though the policy does not directly apply to them. Transgender and other service members expressing non-traditional gender identities are often perceived as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, thus increasing the likelihood that they will be investigated under DADT. DADT targets these service members regardless of their actual sexual orientation.

So, what happens next? SLDN is faced with a situation on continuing to show its support for transgender service members without damaging the integrity of MREA. The TAVA survey has been read by Congress people already, so it is no longer a secret. SLDN may start getting tough questions about transgender service members, which was not TAVA's intention.

We know there are solutions to help them in answering these questions and TAVA is ready to sit down and talk with them to work out those solutions. I am sure that conversation will be happening very soon, when the DNC Convention hoopla has calmed down. What ideas TAVA has are not for this article. When we have made a coordinated decision with SLDN on how to approach this new issue, everyone else will know. We want to take a unified direction that will help all service members and not hurt any of them.

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Thanks for this info, Monica. I had no idea.

Monica, thank you for giving us the background as well as the current situation. SLDN wants to do the right thing, but needs some guidance. It sounds like TAVA is providing that help. You lead an invaluable organization.

Dawn Storrud | August 30, 2008 11:24 AM

Thank you, Monica for the update and for the encouragement to wait and see how the call for DADT repeal will play out.

Thank you all for your encouragement. TAVA has always felt honored working with SLDN over the years and we will be with them until DADT has gone the way of other bad laws this country has tried over time. If 26 countries allow their gay, lesbian and bisexual military people to serve openly and at least 4 are okay with trans people serving, then there is no reason why our country can't do it either.

Monica while I believe we should be able to serve I think being listed in the DSM hurts us.The lgb doesn't have that problem and are still openly discriminated against.I don't think that any of us will have it easy in a military that allows open service better yes but still with problems.

Angela Brightfeather | August 30, 2008 11:44 PM

I think that if you checked some of the records of those serving today in Irqu, you might find a few people who would qualify for some space in the DSM alos, don't you?

I think that the DSM mentions a few things about socially defective people or sociopaths that might apply right now to a few people in Iraq carrying around M-14's instead of serving their jail sentences out stateside after the Bush/Cheney recruitment program got to them.

Your right Angela there are many in Iraq that would fit into the dsm that the military allowed in by lowering it's standards rather than allowing lgb and T soldiers.But there are also many there that wouldn't have fit into the dsm but will when they return.As a T vet I'm all for allowing us to serve but I do believe are status within the Dsm creates a hurdle that has to be recognized and if possible dealt with.Avoiding it because it's not our specialty does little to advance the potential for us to be able to serve openly.To best represent the rights of those who served are serving and will serve all the aspects of are discrimination must be looked at and ways to address them must be figured out.

TAVA is not involved with the DSM-V problems. There are others who have a far greater experience in that area taking care of that. Talk with them. TAVA is working with the transgender veterans and military people issues. We can't be an organization of all trades and a master of none.

"That all changed when the most prestigious institution in the country, The Palm Center, published the White Paper Report on the Transgender Veterans Survey. They lent credibility to our claims that transgender people can no longer be left out of the DADT discussion."

"Most prestigious" is a bit of a reach. How many people who are not members of your organization have previously heard of The Palm Center?

The "white paper" report of findings isn't peer reviewed.

The survey uses a non-random sampling method which allows for no analysis of how the sample relates to the larger population.

With a non random sample size of less than 3% of your assumed population the results are barely more than anecdotal.

Have the survey questions been validated or was survey design accomplished by individuals knowledgeable in question writing?

Since the VA is prohibited from providing SRS, hormone therapy related to sex reassignment or counseling related to GID how are you distinguishing between denial of service in general or adherence to regulations in particular?

Questions in the survey relating to disrespect encountered at VA facilities are general in nature and not specific to gender expression. How narrative responses to the questions are coded is not discussed in the methods section.

There is no explicit break down of the number of respondents who were on active duty under the DADT policy and thus actually subject to its provisions.

One of your claims is that transgender soldiers were improperly targeted under DADT, yet none of the survey questions ask about sexual relations with members of the same sex. How can you claim that individuals were improperly targeted without knowing whether or not your respondents participated in the behaviors prohibited by the policy?

It does not appear that you designed the survey to answer any predefined research questions. Instead someone sat up over what I can only imagine were many sleepless nights thinking up things to ask on a survey. You then dumped your questions into survey monkey, collected answers, and concocted research around those answers.

Do you really want to help transgender veterans? If so, scrap your entire mission statement with the exception of,

"to ensure that transgender veterans will receive appropriate care for their medical conditions in accordance with the Veterans Health Administration’s Customer Service Standards promise to 'treat you with courtesy and dignity . . . as the first class citizen that you are.”'

After that raise some real money and sponsor research done by somebody's school of public health about health disparities in transgender populations served by the veterans administration health system. And equally important, do not waste one breath, spill one drop of ink, or spend one penny on anything that is not tied directly to your mission statement.

And, your qualifications to ask these questions are . . . ?

By the way, there are many gay, lesbian and bisexual people on this blog who know about The Palm Center. Ask HRC, SLDN, AVER, NGLTF, PFLAG, IFGE and NCTE. Even the LCR knows about them. Congress people know who they are. If these major organizations and people in the know are aware of them and consider their work to be highly credible, then I guess that trumps your "concerns."

Angela Brightfeather | September 1, 2008 8:58 PM

Hey Greg,

Are you kidding me? We could really need your expertise on the next survey. How do I get a hold of you. You sound like your background is exactly what we could use. Do you work for non-profits on a regular basis an pro-bono?
Can you direct me to any surveys that you have participated or authored in past few years?

Hi Angela,

Thanks for the vote of confidence. However, the review I did of the white paper and questionnaire was at the level of a very well informed consumer. My background is that of a research coordinator. I'm used to being around the material and thinking about it in various contexts.

Even though I had a lot of questions about the report and underlying research, I think it accomplished something very valuable. You laid the groundwork for more in depth study.

I think your next step goes well beyond another survey. The process now needs to involve content experts in the areas of health disparities and health policy and management. Both far beyond the capacity of a research coordinator.

In any case, your work is getting to the point where it gets incredibly interesting and exciting. I would welcome the opportunity to exchange emails privately about some of my ideas. My interest in this stems from my being a veteran. So naturally I take veterans' health care issues very seriously.

I'm registered on the site, so Bil or Alex should be able to slide you my email address.

In the mean time, have a good one and I look forward to working with you.