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Inside the Fight to End Trans Discrimination in the Military

Justin Sullivan/Getty

Just weeks after the Supreme Court put marriage equality into law nationwide, another LGBT tremor shook the cultural landscape. On July 13, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered a six-month study aimed at lifting the regulations that ban transgender people from serving openly in the military. Starting immediately, no one will be discharged for being trans without top brass approval—a move widely interpreted as meaning that trans discharges are finished.

Army racial integration took generations of effort. Eliminating the ban on women in combat took decades. Dismantling the Clinton administration’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy took 18 years of organizing. How did the trans ban come down so fast?

The trans movement is being pulled by the updraft from the lesbian, gay, and bisexual columns of the rainbow movement. Over the past few decades, gays and lesbians have dismantled the opposition to living our lives openly, along the way creating robust organizational infrastructure, fundraising networks, and cultural goodwill. The trans movement is building on those advances— strategically, organizationally, culturally, and morally. It helps that inside newsrooms, government offices, funding groups, and corporations, many (not all) lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are telling our newly converted straight allies that they have to extend their acceptance just a bit more, refusing to allow them to belittle or dismiss transfolk. It’s not that lesbians and gay men are fixing the world for transwomen and men. Transfolk are doing it themselves—but it’s easier because the path has been cleared.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the gay and lesbian movement started morphing into Gay Inc., whose strategy was to sell us as just like everyone else, except for who we loved. Two men in Gap polo shirts, a pair of suburban moms: Look at these nice people and forget about those crazy queens gyrating on Pride floats! It was an effective strategy—but it risked squeezing out the many who didn’t assimilate so easily because they were too masculine or feminine for their biological sex.

Those whose queerness lay in how they were gendered—the bulldykes, the queens, the crossdressers, and of course, those whose mental health require full transition to the right sex, started finding each other on the nascent internet. A more capacious identity emerged: transgender. No surprise that those two trends, based on different identity options, clashed in the early 2000s. Organizations (especially the Gay Inc. 800-lb. gorilla, the Human Rights Campaign) and activists fiercely argued over whether the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) should protect people only by sexual orientation—just-like-you-except-for-whom-we-love—or should also include gender identity and presentation—butch, fey, and trans?

By 2008, the inclusiveness faction had won decisively. Transgender issues became a bigger organizing focus, with new trans-specific organizations and new trans-focused staff and projects within Gay Inc. itself.

And yet when it came to the military, activists from all the rainbow columns agreed that it made no sense to try to end the trans military exclusion until Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, first and separately.

That’s because DADT was a law that banned only lesbians and gay men—since transgender people had not yet shown up on the political radar when the law was conceived. DADT had passed in an antigay moral panic in 1993 after President Bill Clinton proposed allowing lesbians and gay men to serve openly, getting rid of Eisenhower-era regulations banning us. Colin Powell (then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn implied that wholesome, corn-fed 18-year-old boys would be raped in the showers by predatory gay men (even though women were discharged under the policy at twice the rate). No one knew enough to fear transgender folks, who hadn’t yet organized as such; they were left behind in musty medical regulations that grouped them as perverts with problematic “psychosexual conditions, including but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias.”

In 2010 Congress repealed DADT, which left transgender folks excluded under DoD regulations—especially troubling because, according to preliminary research, transgender people join the military at twice the rate of the cisgendered (those who identify with the sex assigned at birth). Sometimes that’s to “man up” (for transwomen, in order to suppress their genderqueerness; for transmen, to embrace it) and, sadly, sometimes that’s with the hope of dying in combat, according to Mara Kiesling, one of the repeal efforts’ principals. (More than 40 percent of transgender people said they had attempted suicide at least once, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.)

Two main advocacy groups took aim—both spawned by organizations that had spent years working to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. One was SPART*A (the name, harkening to the ancient Greek city renowned for its military prowess, stands for Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All). SPART*A includes transgender leaders as well as a supporting cast of lesbian and gay vets who thought the job was not yet done. In addition to working behind the scenes with the Pentagon and the administration, SPART*A brought together trans service members to tell their stories to each other—and eventually to the news media, a strategy that had been so effective in arguing against DADT. (Why the asterisk, you ask? I’ll save that for another column.)

The other key advocacy group was the Palm Center, an independent research institute created by Aaron Belkin, a political science professor and self-identified queer man who wanted to use social science to dismantle the specious justifications for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Officially neutral, the Palm Center strategically commissioned and disseminated objective research on whether or not gay and lesbian servicemembers really did threaten “unit cohesion” (spoiler: nope). Over the dozen years that he was working to end DADT, Belkin had conversations with a retired Army colonel from one of the wealthiest families in the country about taking on the trans exclusion once DADT was down, deploying the same social science approach.

 In 2013, that Army colonel and billionaire philanthropist, Jennifer Pritzker, came out as a transwoman—and granted the Palm Center $1.35 million to sponsor research and discussion on the question of transgender people in the military. With that, Belkin commissioned a dozen scholars to investigate the claims against trans inclusion. He also lined up former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders and a retired Coast Guard admiral and doctor to head a “nonpartisan national commission … to consider whether Pentagon policies that exclude transgender service members are based on medically sound reasons.” The report, which appeared in March 2014, carefully concluded that ending the ban would improve the military, in part by ensuring that all those trans servicemembers could get medically appropriate care and wouldn’t have to hide.  Meanwhile, two physicians who were gay men were working furiously behind the scenes to get the American Medical Association to issue a resolution stating that there was “no medically valid reason” to exclude transgender servicepeople—which took away the military’s fig leaf excuse that the strenuous medical needs of transpeople could not be handled in the “austere” theater of war.

Meanwhile, transpeople who had felt the military exclusion most deeply added heft to the campaign, working their contacts in the Pentagon. Allyson Robinson, a West Point graduate and veteran (she’d commanded missile units and worked for NATO) took a leading role, as did Brynn Tannehill, a 1997 Naval Academy grad who’d flown helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft and worked in the 5th Fleet Headquarters in Bahrain. Their military experience, of course, gave them authority: It meant that they “spoke military,” as Robinson put it. “You need that cultural competence. It has its own way of doing business.”

In 2014 and 2015, the Washington Post and the New York Times separately ran in-depth features—in the latter case, a mini-documentary filmed by bisexual activist Fiona Dawson—showcasing fully masculine transmen on the front lines in Afghanistan. These guys were working and living as male soldiers, but their active duty status was threatened by medical records identifying them as previously female. (Transmen tend to “pass” more easily than transwomen, in part because it’s much easier to add testosterone’s power to masculinize a body than it is to undo testosterone’s transformative effects.)

The story line is, by now, familiar. But for being born with parts that clash with their deeply felt gender (and having therefore been “assigned female at birth” or “assigned male at birth” as the new preferred phrasing has it)—these men and women are just like you. They work hard. They dedicate their lives to our country. They fall in love.

The establishment powerhouses of the Times and Post were invoking the moral authority of the rainbow coalition—running the same kinds of “just like you but different” pieces that they’d learned to produce about lesbians and gay men. The successful Gay Inc. narrative is being wheeled out again.

A larger reason that the trans movement has been able to swiftly advance can found in the festive attitude in much of center-left America at having signed up on “the right side of history,” at seeing justice triumph the way it’s supposed to, at least in one arena. Black men and women might be dying at the hands of police, Wal-Mart and fast food workers might be living on food stamps, climate change might be ready to wipe out the coasts—but the country has concluded that “love is love.” The same people who, ten or fifteen years ago, were worrying that gay folks were demanding too much too soon now can’t understand why marriage equality took so long. Now that that moral or emotional or neural pathway has been forged and Americans are willing to feel empathy for someone who’s sexually different, it’s easier to be open to yet another twist in a similar story.

The Pentagon fought for two decades to keep lesbians and gay men out, threatening dire consequences if they were allowed to serve openly—and has been proven completely wrong. Every other attempt to undo a military ban—for blacks, women, and gay people—had always evoked a “This will never happen, over my dead body” response from officials. But not this time, at least not in public. The brass weren’t willing to look foolish yet again.

A few days after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on same-sex marriage, the Times ran an “Upshot” piece declaring that the ruling was “a potent example of a dominant theme in American history: Over time, civil rights expand, and discrimination ebbs.” Whether or not that’s true—ask your Muslim friends, or Sandra Bland’s family—Americans like to believe it is. The imminent death of the ban on military service for transmen and transwomen is one good example. Consider: Even Jeb Bush supports open transgender service.