The Outrageous Truth About Being Transgender in the U.S. Military


Reconsidering one’s gender identity involves questioning what is perhaps the deepest sense of self a person possesses. It is the part of our identity that is declared even before we are born, and it is often — culturally — one of the strongest signifiers that denotes how others might behave towards us. People who dare to confront this norm and expectation demonstrate a tremendous amount of courage. Ironically enough, however, transgender people are alienated in the U.S. establishment most often also associated with the term "courage": the United States Armed Forces.

Discrimination against transgender servicewomen and servicemen continues to be systematic within the military, despite recent associated improvements. And it's vitally important for Americans — especially those who already fought for gay and lesbian inclusion in the military — to understand that equality has not yet been reached, that employment discrimination is still alive and well, and that military policymakers must take another painful look at the inheritance of their intolerance.

The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), which went into effect in September 2011, does not liberate transgender personnel in the same way it does lesbian, gay, or bisexual personnel, as "the repeal marked the end of discriminatory practices in the military based on sexual orientation, but it did not end the prohibition on transgender military service." With the battle for LGBT rights seemingly now "won" within the military, transgender individuals are left to face the same humiliation of hiding their identity that they were faced with before.

Surprisingly, the discrimination that attacks transgender persons serving in the armed forces was not housed in DADT, but rather is institutionalized in the military medical code. This code prohibits the service of people with “psychosexual” conditions, which for the military includes transgender identification, cross-dressing, and any other actions interpreted as gender transitioning. Because of this code, those wishing to serve or already serving in the military face a seemingly insurmountable decision: whether to be true to themselves or to follow their desired career path.

As one young transgender man shares, “I have wanted to enlist in the military my entire life...and now I am finally having to come to terms with the fact that I will either have to delay my transition...or give up on my dreams.”  Servicemember Bryce Celloto realizes this, even as he discusses his decision to transition for the Huffington Post. For Celloto, it was the culture of gender-normativity in the military which caused him to realize his own "gender dysphoria."

According to Jack Harrison-Quintana and Jody L. Herman's latest report, "Transgender Service Members and Veterans in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey," “transgender service members and veterans have reported wide-ranging experiences of discrimination, harassment, and physical and sexual assault while serving in the military.” Given that transgender individuals are considered unfit to serve from the start, this finding is sadly not surprising. It is perhaps for this reason that 97% of the respondents identified said they were unable to transition prior to departing from the military. People like Celloto and Scott Schneider, however, did choose to make their transition while in the military and share similarly fortunate accounts of understanding and supportive colleagues and commanders. Their examples demonstrate that even in a inherently discriminatory system, compassion still exists.

Many have looked upon the repeal of DADT as a tremendous accomplishment for the LGBT community — and it was, but it didn't go far enough. Activists and policymakers must continue to work together to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for transgender individuals seeking to serve and sacrifice for their country.