On Chelsea Manning: Being Trans in the Military, Post-DADT


In 2011, I was disappointed when, following heated debate among the student population, then-President of Brown Univeritys, Ruth Simmons, decided not to allow Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), a leadership program sponsored by the U.S. military, back on campus.  ROTC, which does not allow the participation of trans students (nor, at the time, of gay or lesbian students) was originally banned from Brown in 1972. Initially—and this position cannot be separated from my upbringing as a ‘military brat’—I felt it was classist to bar ROTC from Brown, and that opposition to ROTC was primarily a result of anti-military bias, a fear of sensationalized ‘militarization’. But as the events surrounding the 25-year-old Army soldier formerly known as Bradley Manningc panned out, I have become convinced that eliminating trans discrimination requires cooperation and solidarity from all directions. 

Shortly after being sentenced life in prison for her role in the WikiLeaks scandal, Manning announced that “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female” and requested to be referred to by feminine pronouns. Unsurprisingly, many media outlets blatantly ignored Manning’s preference, in some cases—as with the New York Times and AP—running contrary to their own style guides. Twitter, too, became overrun with transphobic commentary.

What is most disappointing to me about the way in which Manning’s transitition has been treated is that it doesn’t surprise me. We live in a cissexist, transphobic society that has yet to begin consider trans issues ‘mainstream’ in the same way as certain lesbian and gay rights. There has been some progress of late: in California, students now access facilities that correspond to the gender with which they identify, and the recent murder of a trans woman in Brooklyn, though heartbreaking, is at least being investigated as what is was—a hate crime—rather than ignored.

My question is this: does the military have the potential to evolve on this issue, too?

This September will mark two years since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell became effective—a sure step forward for current and future armed service members, but also an exclusionary one. The Department of Defense released a report which clarified that A Department of Defense report on DADT further clarifies the issue: “Transgender and transsexual individuals are not permitted to join the Military Services,” the report states. “The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has no effect on these policies.”

But if the repeal of DADT—in addition to the recent decision to officially allow women in combat—can at minimum be viewed as the ability of the military as an institution to adapt and progress, is transgender inclusion on the horizon? 

Currently, at least ten countries—Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand and the U.K.—permit transgender people to serve in the military at least to a certain extent. Some of these countries accept or reject candidates on a case-by-case basis, others have certain regulations and policies. 

Meanwhile in the U.S., the inclusion of transgender people has yet to make its way onto the table. A possible reason that lesbian and gay inclusion in the military has taken precedence over trans inclusion —that is, in addition to the increased stigma and marginalization of trans people—is the lower numbers. It’s easier for trans veterans (vs active duty trans people) to become activists as they no longer risk losing their occupation, but it’s estimated that there are 140,000 trans veterans—that’s barely one in 200. Interestingly, of the estimated 700,000 trans people in the U.S., approximately 20% of them have served, as opposed to 10% of the general population. A follow-up to a 1998 study on masculinity found that military men are twice as likely to identify as transgender than their civilian counterparts; the study’s author, George Brown, wrote that “They joined the service, in their words, ‘to become a real man.'”

As it stands now, the military views transgenderism as a psychological disorder disqualifying one from service. The Army Medical Services Standards of Medical Fitness, for example, describes “transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestitism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias” as causes for rejection in Section 2-30 on Psychosexual Conditions. Any evidence of ‘lying’ about one’s gender during a background check would result in disqualification and using something other than one’s sex at birth on entry forms can be considered ‘fraudulent enlistment.’

 But even if one begins transitioning after successfully enlisting, there are several safeguards in place to expel trans and gender non-conforming individuals, according to a report from the University of California-Santa Barbara. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, military personnel must report any external healthcare; doing so would reveal gender nonconformity, but not doing so puts you at risk for criminal action. Regulation of gender in the armed services is nothing if not thorough, and many policy changes would need to take place to allow transgender people to serve openly. A small piece of good news is that unlike DADT, the military autonomously decides what medical and psychological barriers to put in place, so an act of Congress would not be necessary.

 There have been at least some small, but not insignificant, changes in institutional attitudes towards trans people. In December last year, the American Psychological Association decided to remove ‘gender identity disorder’ from their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and instead begin using the more neutral diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria,’ a term used to describe emotional distress over one’s gender. (It is worth noting, however, that without a medical diagnosis like GID, sex reassignment surgery and accompanying treatments, such as hormones, could likely be considered cosmetic surgery and no longer be covered by health insurance).

Furthermore, the Department of Veteran Affairs now only refers to trans veterans by their preferred name and gender pronouns, and offers therapy and hormone treatment. Just last month, Navy veteran and trans woman Autumn Sandeen, who in April 2010 travelled cross-country from San Diego to D.C. and handcuffed herself to the fence of the White House in her Naval uniform in protest of the military’s discrimatory policies, received the following letter from the VA: “Per your request the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) has been updated to show your gender as female effective April 12, 2013.”

And opportunities for trans people to become involved in the military are emerging: post-transition, Erika Stenton wanted to return to military service in some way, and though she acknowledges that “the path I took isn’t widely available, and the bar was set very high,” she succeeded. After a medical review and re-establishing her security clearance, the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW), a new program in the Department of Defense, allowed Stenton to volunteer for the Army and deploy to Afghanistan. Her gender status was taken into account with housing, and she was housed without a roommate when possible and with other women otherwise. Furthermore, “legal and HR officials made it clear to me once I arrived at the deployed location that any cases of discrimination would be taken seriously and handled appropriately,” Stenton wrote of this experience.

Particularly given these small advancements, to say that trans exclusion from the military is a military problem would be misleading. The American military does not exist in a vacuum, but is intimately intertwined with other institutions in our society—educational institutions, the media, the government, prisons. Trans discrimination is easy to spot in military policies, but it is widespread in the civilian world, too.

 How Manning was treated pre-trail illustrates this to a degree. After Wired published chat conversations in which Manning appeared to express identifying as a woman (“I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy…”) and New York Magazine ran a feature piece in which an anonymous counselor said that Manning “felt he [sic] was female” and “wanted to do surgery,” Manning’s gender identity became a topic of national conversation. But what’s revealing is how this conversation has panned out. The Daily Beast described Manning as “suffering from gender identification disorder,” and emphasized her “mental-health struggles.” ABC News referred to Manning’s possible trans identification as an “alter ego.” The same article explains how in the pre-trail, Manning’s lawyer brought up her ‘gender identity disorder’ to show “what was going on in my client’s mind,” suggesting that transgenderism automatically implies instability. Indeed, Master Sgt. Craig Blenis Tweeted that it was “not normal and not stable” when he received letters from Manning signing off as ‘Breanna,’ contributing to a decision to place her on Prevention of Injury status that was effectively solitary confinement.

What follows in terms of Manning’s treatment in prison (at Forth Leavenworth, the military’s most famous/notorious prison, and an all-male facility) has the potential to bring the injustices that trans people suffer to the forefront of public consciousness, particularly in terms of their conditions in prisons. The ACLU has stated that denying hormone therapy to Manning in prison could violate her constitutional rights, as such therapy is ‘necessary medical treatment.’ Kristen Beck, a former Navy SEAL and author of ‘Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s  Journey to Coming Out Transgender,’ wrote that she believes this could lead to transgender revolution, and I, for one, hope she’s right.

 Further reading: America’s prisons fail transgender inmates

Chelsea Manning is now the most famous transgender inmate in America

Transmilitary: meet the soldiers the military doesn’t want you to

More Information on Transgender Service from Outserve-SLDN

By: Sophia Seawell, Contributor 

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