Back in 2011 I met a young transgender sailor, Ayden, who was born male but feels she was meant to be female. Now that she's discharged, I can tell her story. It's a story that paints the landscape of transgender issues in the military, which are alive and well long after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
Ayden was a Navy corpsman who spent most of her career delivering babies. She got a quick lesson in the three things military personnel share with the fashion industry:
- They care way too much about hair and clothes.
- They spend months learning how to "walk."
- Getting the job done is almost as important as feeling respected.
For the male-dominated, hypersexualized culture of the military, Ayden was not "fitting their look." Despite the fact that she never officially changed her sex and conformed to dress regulations at work, there was a lot of angst about her runway-style walk, her feminine voice, and her cross dressing after working hours.
"One day, I got called into my Sergeant Major's office, and he sat me down to have a talk. He said I was violating the regulations because I had nail polish on my toes," said Ayden. "I don't know how he could tell that from my boots, but I argued that it wasn't against the regulations and even offered to show him the books. He wouldn't listen, so I said that if it was such a problem, let's take it up to the [commanding officer]."
As any vet can tell you, Ayden was making a risky stand.
"Sure enough, it went up to the CO," she said. "And he said that I was right. There's nothing in the regulations that says I can't have nail polish -- on my toes, at least. I was still upset, though. I was upset because it really didn't matter. What did this have to do with anything?"
Unfortunately, the nail polish had to do with everything. Commanding officers all over the world have nothing but bad choices. They have to look the other way or refer the servicemember for psychiatric help.
If a person is given a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, a diagnosis whose primary treatment is through physical changes like hormone therapy and reconstructive surgery, then the military medically discharges the member. Military regulations make gender identity disorder a diagnosis for discharge, like schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder. The only way to continue serving is for transgender personnel to lie about or not talk about their gender identity, while continuing to find ways to express their gender identity in the closet.
Now, imagine you're the CO in charge of a Navy hospital. Do you follow the rules and gut your manpower in critical places? Most commanding officers choose what's best for the organization. But when they look the other way, the battleground over transgender service shifts from the right to serve to the right to serve with toenail polish. Even if COs look the other way, individuals take it into their own hands to pick apart personnel like Ayden on gender-normative dress regulations, instead of dealing with the real issue: transgender service.
The military is choosing style over substance. Policy makers are so concerned with people's genitals that they don't seem to care whether they're keeping people with courage -- you know, the courage it takes to stand up to a Sergeant Major when he's wrong, or the courage it takes to deal with frenzied military wives giving birth, or the courage it takes to be oneself despite all the talk and criticism.
As a veteran concerned with military integrity, I couldn't care less whether Ayden identifies as a man or a woman. She's got the kind of courage the military should want to keep.