Leave No One Behind
A Plea from One Transgender Veteran to not Forget Her Community
By Brynn Tannehill
One year has passed since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), and it is, rightly, a time for celebrating. Service members kicked out under DADT have returned to active duty. The Pentagon held Pride Month ceremonies. Pictures of lesbian and gay service members being greeted by their loved ones after deployment made headlines. Even the Defense of Marriage Act may be swept away in a flood of constitutional scrutiny. All the dire predictions by those opposed to the repeal have failed to materialize, according to a new Palm Center study.
Now, the LGB community carries the burden of ending the exclusion of people like me from service. Transgender people have little power to change the situation from the inside or outside. We try to smile and be happy for the LGB community, but there is still unfinished business.
Despite performing at the same levels as our uniformed friends, we still cannot serve openly. I and two other transsexual friends—also defense contractors—have had key roles in the entire life cycle of a single major weapon system. I was an SH-60B Seahawk pilot; one of my friends was a Seahawk maintainer who retired after 20 years in the Navy and now leads the maintenance development team; the other is a senior engineer at the manufacturer. Among the three of us we designed the aircraft, saw it through test and evaluation, developed maintenance procedures for it, flew it in the fleet, maintained it in the fleet, developed its replacement, and disposed of it at the Davis-Monthan AFB Boneyard in Arizona. Each of us played a key role in every phase of the Seahawk’s existence. Yet, we couldn’t do these jobs in uniform and be openly transgender.
We are not the only example of trans people serving our nation. Dr. Christine McGinn was astronaut trained and the flight surgeon for two shuttle launches. Amanda Simpson, a presidential appointee, serves as special assistant to the assistant secretary of the Army. She can lead, she can set policy, she is rendered military honors, but she would not be allowed to serve. The nation has trusted us with every aspect of an aircraft’s life cycle, with combat, the health of astronauts on space shuttle missions, and with decisions affecting the entire Army; yet all of us would be medically barred from service because we are transgender.
Immediately following the end of DADT some attention was given to the possibility of trans inclusion in the military. Australia ended its ban in 2010. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) maintained a web page briefly describing why trans people are barred from service. OutServe has added some focus with my column and inclusion of transgender issues in their conferences. But there is no great push for change from within the services.
A few articles were written about transgender veteran and activist Autumn Sandeen. The responses to those articles were nearly universally hateful, vile, and uninformed. While unprintable, their criticisms of transgender inclusion fell into these basic categories:
• The military is not a social experiment;
• Conformity and discipline rule in the military—explain to me how that works with those people?
• Those people are mentally ill;
• Having those people serving openly is bad for morale, good order and discipline;
• Those people need special medical care we can’t afford;
• Those people aren’t mentally suited for the rigors of combat;
• If those people serve openly it will embolden our enemies to attack us;
• Those people are only doing this to make a political point—they don’t really want to serve;
• We can’t have those people using the same bathrooms as normal people;
• God doesn’t approve of those people.
This narrative should sound familiar. These arguments are similar to those raised against allowing African-Americans, women and gays in the armed forces. They all boil down to one issue though; transgender people are the pariahs of American society. Like many minorities before us, we are misunderstood. We are judged against a standard of transgender people who choose to be visible rather than the actual norm of transgender people desperately trying to blend in. The invisible majority of transgender people have goals, aspirations, talents, hopes, and lives that mirror the rest of America. We want to be judged on our work ethic and abilities, not on adherence to stereotypes.
Even those who seem to agree in principle that transgender people should be allowed to serve openly in the military often throw their hands up and say, “But how do you propose we do it? The logistics of the situation are impossible!” This argument is nonsense. Ten other countries have successfully integrated transgender people into their militaries. Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have cultures similar to our own and allow transgender people to serve openly.
Already, we have certain duties where military and civilian boundaries blur. The Merchant Marine is part of the Department of Transportation, but when operating in a war zone it falls under the control of the Navy. Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, transgender people have served as officers on USNS ships operating in theater. These USNS ships often have mixed complements of naval officers and Merchant Marine officers. This leads to a situation where a trans Merchant Marine officer lives with, works with and works for naval officers, all the while wearing a uniform and being accorded the same rank, pay and privileges as any other naval officer. Another real example is a transgender loadmaster on a government-contract, civilian cargo aircraft delivering troops and supplies into Afghanistan and Iraq since just after 9/11. She is doing the same job she did when she was in the Air Force.
The exclusion of transsexuals from active service is different from DADT, which was a legislative restriction placed on the services. The ban on transsexual service members is a military medical policy. The onus of removing this restriction lies on those people within the services. The push must come from the inside to change the old policy and to develop new ones that retain service members who are transgender.
As we celebrate the one-year anniversary of the demise of DADT, transgender people can hope to have more open allies, particularly from the LGB community. We need that support. Time will go by, and people who benefitted from the end of DADT will rise in rank and position, earning the authority to push for transgender inclusion. There is little public sentiment pulling for it outside the military, though. No court case is likely to fix it. Too few politicians are interested in the issue.
Not many people appear eager to pick up the banner for us. However, we cannot accomplish much on our own as a small, impoverished, frequently despised minority with few advocates and not much access to political power. The only way to make change is with the support of others. In short, without allies, we will go nowhere.
Paula Neira, a lawyer and long-time member of the SLDN, summed up the moral obligation to continue to fight for equality: “There are dedicated, patriotic transgender service members in every branch of the military, many of whom serving or have served in harm’s way. They deserve the same dignity and respect as any of their comrades. Their continued service should be valued. They deserve nothing less.”
Many people still suffer in closeted silence. We can only hope that the ethos of “leave no one behind” remains strong.