On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told ABC’s Martha Raddatz that he believes the military should review its policy on transgender service members. In a year of many big reforms in the military (particularly surrounding gender and sexual assault), this policy had been something of a blind spot. Thanks to an outdated web of military regulations, transgender service members who come out are processed for separation, either medical (the military still considers transgender identity a form of sexual deviance) or for violating a conduct regulation (forbidding cross-dressing or taking medication not prescribed by a military doctor), often with a less than honorable discharge that makes it difficult for them to access veterans' benefits. Still, experts estimate more than 15,000 transgender people currently serve in the U.S. Army, with varying degrees of comfort and secrecy. To find out more about what it’s like for them, and what’s holding the military back from recognizing them, the Cut spoke with Allyson Robinson, a West Point alum who commanded a Patriot missile unit before coming out and becoming an advocate for LGBT service members. She now serves as policy director of SPART*A and a principal consultant on the docuseries Transmilitary.
What do you think of Secretary Hagel’s endorsement of a review of the military’s transgender policy?
I find it very encouraging for two reasons. One, it’s been four years since we repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I think it’s an acknowledgement that the integration of gay and lesbian people has gone very, very well and is contributing to the strength of our military. It also represents something the Pentagon doesn’t do very often: a very fast pivot on an issue. The situation prior to three weeks ago was a refusal even to acknowledge that trans people even existed. About three weeks ago, the story of U.S. Navy dominance warfare specialist Landon Wilson [who was up for a position with the highest-level security clearance until it was discovered he’d transitioned in 2011] was on the front page of the Washington Post. The Pentagon went from having no plans to review the policy to, in just a couple of weeks, the secretary of defense saying it should be reviewed. That represents a very quick change for an institution that is not known for quick turnarounds.
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell established that people can live and work among the gender they’re sexually attracted to, so why this hang up about people who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth?
Yes, with the repeal of DADT we’ve taken down the barriers around sexual orientation, whom you love, but there’s another critical piece to this. Just over a year ago then-Secretary [of Defense] Leon Panetta brought about an end of the combat exclusion for women, which completes the integration of armed forces around sex, who you are. The dissolution of those two barriers is what’s allowed the Department of Defense to take this next logical step. At the time, President Obama said, “Valor knows no gender.” That is a fundamental principle by which our country is now seeking to operate, and, under that principle, it makes perfect sense to review these regulations.
Most transgender service members serve under the gender they were assigned at birth, right?
The vast majority. Although, Landon Wilson, he had been serving as a man both Stateside and then as he was deployed to a forward-operating location and had been doing so very effectively. He had been recommended for promotion ahead of his peers, and had been given awards and decorations ahead of his peers. For the most part, it’s that experience I described a moment ago, but we’re hearing of people coming out to their peers and being supported. Transgender men might have an easier path, being perceived as butch or masculine as a woman — those are qualities the military admires. But there are also transgender women who are coming out to their peers and chains of command and actually serving in the capacity of their experienced gender, not their assigned sex, and are being accepted.
It’s just like DADT. Commanders recognize it’s hard to train a good soldier. I know this from my own time as a Patriot missile commander in the Middle East. When you find a really good soldier, you do about whatever you can to hold onto that person. Increasingly commanders realize these things no longer work and they look the other way and their service members continue to serve. But that only lasts as long as the commander’s assignment, and then it all starts over again.
What about the argument that it’s difficult for the military to cater to transgender people’s medical needs on the front lines?
One fact that is not widely known is that the DOD is already deploying openly transgender people to austere environments — Afghanistan, Iraq, at sea, and elsewhere — as civilian support personnel and civilian contractors. Those contractors serve our country very effectively, right alongside our servicemen but not in uniform. Another is that the Canadians, the British, and the Australians, who have stood alongside us on the front lines of the war on terror, have been deploying trans service members since the war on terror began.
Except for about a six-month period around surgical transition, my medical needs are no different than any other service member's. All my medical needs are handled by a general practitioner. The medication that I, as a trans woman, take is small in quantity and shelf-stable, and the DOD is already shipping to front lines for other service members, like perimenopausal women. The “austere environments” argument is really a slow pitch right over the plate. It’s very, very easily refutable.
What effect do high-profile transgender service members like Chelsea Manning and former Seal Team 6 member Kristin Beck have on this debate?
I think it’s no coincidence that Hagel’s step forward on this issue comes on the heels of a detailed report from a commission headed up by the former surgeon general on the medical rationale for these regulations and a front-page report in Hagel’s hometown newspaper about a promising young sailor who just wanted to serve his country. He said it during his confirmation — and during his tenure in the Senate he said some nasty things to LGBT people — that one of his fundamental values is that anyone who is qualified to serve in this nation’s military should be given the chance to serve. As a former sergeant himself, he carries a value of taking care of those he serves. That’s his job. I think Secretary Hagel sees stories like Landon Wilson’s — and we’ll be seeing more and more of them in the weeks to come — and the sergeant in him feels compelled to take care of those soldiers and to keep those soldiers fighting.
How are things different for transgender people serving in foreign armies?
For the documentary series Transmilitary, the British Ministry of Defense has allowed us to talk to transgender people across all branches and ranks of the military. One of the stories I’ve heard has stuck with me and symbolizes what we’ve learned there. A young British combat engineer went through the regulatory process assigned as the male sex, then went through the process of informing the chain of command about her trans identity, and setting a date at which her official service gender would change, which was also the point at which she began hormone-replacement therapy. On the day that her service gender changed and she began taking that medication — which came in a patch form — her comrades threw a surprise party for her, men and women. They brought her in and all rolled up their sleeves and revealed they were wearing big Band-Aids on their arms that looked like patches. They called it a patch party. No U.S. soldier who served alongside the British would say they were anything less than an effective and professional fighting force, one of the most in the world. That’s how their military has responded to these changes, and I have no doubt that ours can do it better.
How would your career have been different if there had been no ban on transgender service members?
Trans people join the military at twice the rate of the normal civilian. Many imagine we join the military to make men out of ourselves; I joined the football team to make a man of myself, and we can all see how effective that was. For me it was the family business. My dad is a retired command sergeant major with 30 years of service, and his father flew in B-17 bombers over occupied Europe in World War II. It was instilled in me at a very young age to give something back for all the blessings I’d received just for being born here. I should be clear: I didn’t leave the military because I was transgender, as far as I understood myself at the time time. I loved serving. I loved my time at West Point, I loved being an enlisted soldier, as a combat medic and air artillery officer, and I was good at my job. When I talk to trans service members they may have joined because it was a good job or they needed money for college or their families needed good health-care benefits (and those are hard to find today), but they’re there to serve us. It should be heartbreaking that people have to forgo medical treatment that could help them live whole and healthy lives just for the privilege of laying those lives on the line for us.
When you put it like that this all sounds so petty.
People wonder why trans people would want to be in the military, and it’s because they feel responsibility to improve the institution. That’s why they stick around, because they have taken on that responsibility as a sacred duty and it’s the sacred duty of any military leader I think. And I’m very optimistic. When I was at the human rights campaign and working to repeal DADT, I viewed trans military service as a long-term goal, a 20-year fight. The fact is so much has changed in the military and in our culture. Today I am much more optimistic and not unrealistically. These are changes that can easily be made in the three- to five-year time frame. Secretary Hagel's comment only reinforces my optimism.