Ending Trans Discrimination In the Military: the Rest of the Story

On July 13, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that next year, after a 6-month study, transgender Americans should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces along with their gay and lesbian compatriots. It is a long overdue action to remove a barrier to open service for a small but significant minority.
07/27/2015 04:38 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2016

On Monday July 13, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that next year, after a 6-month study, transgender Americans should be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces along with their gay and lesbian compatriots. It is a long overdue action to remove a barrier to open service for a small but significant minority whose participation in the military is proportionately greater than that of the general population.

Secretary Carter has asked his Personnel Undersecretary, Brad Carson, to set up a working group of senior military and civilian leaders to take an objective look at the issue. One senior official said that while the goal is to lift the ban, Carter wants the working group to look at the practical effects, including the costs, and to determine whether it would affect readiness or create any insurmountable problems that could derail the plan. The group would also develop uniform guidelines for transgender inclusion throughout all the services.

During the 6 month study period, transgender individuals still would not be able to join the military, but any decisions to force out those already serving would be referred to the Pentagon's acting undersecretary for personnel, the officials said. One senior official said the goal was to avoid forcing any transgender service members to leave during that time.

When that study is completed and assuming a positive result, the last impediment to a group of Americans willing to enlist or re enlist in the armed forces will be gone, and the estimated 15,500 trans service members who are currently serving in the closet will be able to, at last, come out and continue their service!

Movement on this has been relatively quick and there is more to the story than the news reports and blogs that pick up the headlines have told.

Transgender activists will point to TAVA, The Transgender American Veterans Association, led by Monica Helms, creator of the Transgender flag, as the first organized call for open trans service. I recall joining them at a National Conference in DC in 2004 where they formally laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown. In 2010 blogger, activist and Navy veteran Autumn Sandeen joined Dan Choi and others in uniform protesting for repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and handcuffed herself to the White House fence an act by which she also exposed the transphobia of the local DC police.

Friday April 29, 2011 was a historic day in transgender advocacy in America. On that day, the White House hosted the first ever meeting of transgender advocates and policy experts with an expanded group of Obama Administration officials and policy people attending. Records will show that no advocates representing any veterans or military group were present, but there was a Life Member of TAVA who remarked that although none of those present at the White House meeting were invited to the world publicized Royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton that very same day, a transgender woman, RAF Flight Lieutenant Ayla Holdom, a member of Prince Williams Search and Rescue Team, was!

Even without formal representation at the White house meeting, concerns were aired about Veterans Administration facilities and the inconsistency throughout the VA system in giving dependable quality and respectful medical and care services to transgender veterans.

Perhaps it was merely a coincidence, but to a trained observer, it appeared that positive action was set into motion soon after in July 2011 when Amanda Simpson, an extraordinary woman, who among other talents is a test pilot, Defense industry expert who was on NASA's astronaut candidate list until the Bush Administration disqualified her after her transition, was reposted from the Commerce Department to the Pentagon as a senior advisor to the Secretary of the Army.

In my opinion, the die was now cast, the trajectory was clear having an extraordinarily talented and competent transgender woman at the table could not but help create the right trajectory to change military culture.

By 2012 transgender advocates and proactive allies were becoming visible and vocal. SLDN-Outserve appeared to effectively prioritize the need and to lead in educating the need for an effective inclusive military until they seemed to stop. At the DNC convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, NJ Delegate and OutServe Leader Sue Fulton was actively advocating trans service while celebrating DADT repeal. It was there in Charlotte that I met Fiona Dawson who was talking about her project to document Transgender people actively serving in our military. When our DNC Convention LGBT Caucus had a formal acknowledgement and celebration of DADT repeal featuring former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Douglas Wilson, I had the opportunity to be on the dais with him, we had a brief chat and he seemed to be very aware that trans inclusion is the next step for equality in the Military. He was the first openly gay Assistant Secretary at the Pentagon.

Late in 2012 Medical authorities reclassified the DSM 5 making it very clear that being transgender was not a mental illness and, therefore that medical reason was no longer a justification to disqualify trans people from serving.

In July 2013 SPART*A was founded as an inclusive military organization for LGBT people and allies who are currently serving or have served in the military... "built by, for, and with members from all parts of [the] community." With Sue Fulton and Allyson Robinson leading an inclusive group of individuals they seem to be effective working together.

July 2013 Jennifer Pritzker gave a $1.35 million grant to the Palm Center to study the potential impact of lifting the ban on open transgender service.

Although there has been a minimum of publicity, there are and have been several members of Congress (House and Senate) that have been proactively advocating to the Obama Administration for open service.

I'm not sure if any of the organized groups ever documented the case of an extraordinary infantry soldier, SGM (E-9) Jennifer Long who, having served several tours in the Middle East, was called back to Afghanistan after she had begun her medical transition. She found Army doctors who helped continue her "stealth" transition while she excelled in achieving her mission and was awarded a bronze star for combat valor!

Now retired, SGM Long continues to show her leadership as Post Commander of her VFW post in Kearny NJ which organized sending 900 care packages to the NJ National Guard personnel posted overseas for the 2014 Holidays. Her work is not unnoticed by the NJ State VFW and she has taken a leadership position with the State VFW for veterans' advocacy.

Remarkably, Jennifer is not the first VFW Post Commander! NJ expatriate, Jennifer Dencklau, became the first several years ago in Page, Arizona. She remains active, effective and now has taken a regional leadership position as VFW District 2 Commander for Northern Arizona.

I hope that all our unsung "Jennifers" who have taken direct positive action will be heard and their leadership in mainstream Veterans organizations duly noted and appreciated by Secretary Carter's working group.