Guest Blogger

Open Trans Service: Not If, But When

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 12, 2013 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Transgender & Intersex
Tags: military, military service, open service, trans service, transgender servicemembers, transgender soldier

Editor's Note: Guest blogger Barbra Siperstein was the first transgender member appointed and confirmed to the Democratic National Committee, and is currently a member of the DNC Executive Committee and the deputy vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. In addition to being the president of the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, she's a published author, small business owner, veteran, and a grandparent.

bigstock-USA-Military-603930.jpgIt was with mixed emotions in December of 2010 that I traveled to Washington, D.C. and watched President Obama sign into law a bill that would enable gays, lesbians and bisexual Americans to serve openly in the US military. I shared great joy with friends across the county that this failed, onerous, and overt policy of discrimination would soon be history. On the other hand, it was painfully clear that this legislation did not lift the ban on transgender people from serving openly in the U.S. military. Trans people were never covered in DADT, so the repeal had no effect.

As trans people push for recognition - as we step up, as gays and lesbians gain more rights - stable and inclusive LGBT organizations will focus more and more on transgender rights as part of their mission. Coincidentally, more and more transgender activists are coming out and articulating their message not only within the gay establishment, but also within the inclusive political and societal mainstream.

As the first out transgender member of the Democratic National Committee, I have witnessed first-hand a sea change within the culture and attitude of the Democratic Party toward trans people in a period of less than five years. Although there have been some instances in affiliated groups throughout the USA where everyone has not yet gotten the message, the DNC's belief is clear and its message is spreading: trans people are not to be discriminated against and are encouraged to participate in all levels of the party.

The culture of the political party in power reflects on the administration in power, and during President Obama's administration, many departments of the federal government have adopted nondiscrimination policies on the basis of gender identity. The White House even hired a young bright trans woman to be an intern. Earlier this year, she came back to her home state where she stood out as a leader working with established partisan and non-partisan groups in changing Delaware's law to prohibit transgender discrimination. Brava, Sarah McBride!

Discrimination in the US military is a different issue as trans people are precluded from serving based on old, outdated medical protocols and regulations that were based on ignorance and cultural bias. Until a couple of years ago there had been no formal engagement between transgender policy people and administration people. We started out as part of an overall LGBT umbrella engagement, but issues of a person's gender identity are often separate and distinct from their sexual orientation. In 2011, that happened - quietly, but very effectively - for the first time.

However, the one major area that was not included by our policy wonks at that meeting was transgender military service. In my introductory remarks I found it necessary to remind all present that RAF Flight Lieutenant Ayla Holdoman - an out transgender pilot - was invited to the upcoming royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

A few months later, Amanda Simpson - who had been one of the first two out transgender presidential appointees, a former senior staff person for a major defense contractor - was reassigned from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Defense as a senior advisor to the Secretary of the Army. Do we see an opening for a change in culture? Assigning Amanda was, I believe, a quiet yet significant step forward in breaking down the walls of ignorance at the Pentagon. I first met Amanda at an NCTE lobby day in Washington, D.C. We reconnected in Denver as we were both delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She is an agent of positive change for America!

Transgender service in the military has come to the forefront as current research has indicated that trans people are twice as likely to enlist as cisgender people. Very often have I spoken with trans women who enlisted to assert their masculinity in the hope that the inner woman would go away. For trans men, a career where the stereotypically masculine characteristics of leadership and directness were honored made the military attractive.

It was with no small amount of pleasure and a bit of surprise when at the end of July 2013, the Palm Center - the research institute best known for coordinating more than a decade of research into the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy - announced that they received a three-year, $1.35 million grant from the Tawani Foundation to study transgender military service. The Tawani Foundation, which was founded by Col. James Pritzker (cousin of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker) aims "to affect significant transformation of organizations and educational programs that enrich knowledge, preserve military heritage, improve health and wellness and conserve unique sites for enduring positive impact on individuals, communities and societies."

Just two days later, on August 1, 2013, the Williams Institute released a new study, "Still Serving in Silence: Transgender Service Members and Veterans in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey." The study was drawn from the data collected from the previously-released National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a study of 6,450 transgender people performed by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality.

The Williams Institute study found that 20% of respondents had served in the military, as compared to 10% of the general population. Further, it found that transgender servicemembers experience substantial barriers - including discrimination, harassment, and physical and sexual assault - while serving in the military. Transgender veterans also experience high rates of family rejection and homelessness. They described unique challenges and barriers to obtaining necessary health care and accurate identification documents.

All this news is significant because trans people are now recognized, and the societal discrimination and stigma we face has been uncovered and can be addressed. There are now a growing number of trans veterans coming out, which is another major step towards opening the military to trans people in search of a career. Jobs opening in the military will open jobs elsewhere in our society.

Here in New Jersey we are currently advocating for a piece of legislation, S2786, that will enable trans people to change the gender marker on their birth certificates without having surgery, if their medical provider deems it not necessary. Among our citizen lobbyists is a woman who recently retired from the U.S. Army. Called to the Middle East for her third tour of duty after she had begun her transition, she honored her obligation and continued her transition in stealth, fearing both the Taliban and the U.S. Army, either of which could end her career. She performed with exception, was promoted and awarded a bronze star for valor.

Don't tell me that trans people cannot serve. We do serve, and we serve with honor! I believe that our closets are our biggest enemies. We must fight, and with the help of allies, we will find a way out of the closets and into open military service!

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