The Fight for Trans Rights in the Military

Even after Don't Ask Don't Tell's repeal, gender identity remains unprotected for U.S. armed forces

US Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images
One recent study suggested that trans* people are more likely to enlist in the military than the rest of the population.
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Chelsea Manning, the military whistleblower sentenced last week to 35 years in prison for leaking classified military documents to WikiLeaks, came out as transgender the day after sentencing, announcing that she is female and hopes to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. For many in the trans* community, Manning's announcement was not a revelation but a confirmation of her identity. Though Manning's story is an exceptional one, as a soldier and a prisoner she stands at the intersection of several discriminatory policies that affect thousands of trans* people throughout the United States. In a statement released on August 22nd, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that denying Manning access to hormone therapy – considered medically necessary care for the treatment of gender dysphoria – could be a violation of her Eighth Amendment rights protecting her from cruel and unusual punishment. As trans* identity remains unprotected in the military, however, thousands of trans* service members are, in fact, denied the right to seek medical care and live as their true selves.

"Trans* people are typically released from the military through medical discharge," says Masen Davis, executive director of the Transgender Law Center. "That means the trans* service members who are serving are doing so quietly." A study recently conducted by the LGBTQ Policy Journal at Harvard's Kennedy School for Government found that 20 percent of the trans* people surveyed had served in the military – twice the rate of the rest of the population. The same study found that trans* service members were even more likely than their civilian counterparts to experience employment and housing discrimination and be denied medical treatment. While the successful repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) means sexual orientation is now protected, gender identity is not. And although gender dysphoria is considered a medical disqualification, discharges may be classified as "administrative," potentially limiting troops' future access to VA healthcare.

One trans* service member, a second-year medical student with a full scholarship from the U.S. Navy, feels that the DADT victory was incomplete. "I'm literally the same exact person I was before, the same feelings, experiences, abilities," says Jai, who identifies as non-gendered and prefers gender-neutral pronouns, and plans to begin taking testosterone in September. "The only thing that has changed is the words that describe me, but now I'm deemed unfit for service."

Jai knows that beginning testosterone treatments will likely result in a medical discharge and the loss of their scholarship, meaning they will need to find another way to pay for medical school and may even need to repay the military. It's a risk Jai is willing to take. "My mental state is important to me," Jai says. "Living as a female is a source of daily anxiety and discomfort, and it has contributed to my depression in the past." Jai's options are limited; the idea of postponing testosterone treatments is devastating. Adds Jai, "I'm transitioning because I want to be able to be able to see my reflection and say that I look like me."

As a medical student, Jai feels especially astounded by the discrimination trans* people face when it comes to accessing necessary health care. "It's comparable to a person with type II diabetes or hypothyroidism not having their medication covered," Jai says. Jai, whose father was a career military serviceman, saw the Navy as an opportunity to go to medical school and serve a population that needed care. Now, they're hoping to avoid being discharged until figuring out another way to pay for school.

Jai hopes that Chelsea Manning's coming out will raise awareness of the number of trans* people serving in the military, and is eager to see whether the military will provide Manning's medical care. Manning's attorney, David Coombs, says he hopes that Fort Leavenworth will "do the right thing," despite an earlier statement from the prison's spokesperson that "the Army does not provide hormone therapy or sex-reassignment surgery." Manning, already a deeply symbolic figure in the battle over government transparency, now stands at the center of another national conversation. Manning has requested respect, support and medical care. How the military, the media and the American public honor that request will affect not only her, but the struggle for trans* rights across the country.