Transgender Troops in the Military – Fit for Duty

Army Captain Jennifer Peace felt like she could finally breathe. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced on television from Peace's office that she could serve in public, as she had. It's over, she realized. It was finally over. No more rules about men's uniforms or cropped hair; no more subordinates awkwardly greeting him as “sir” instead of “ma'am.”

For Peace, an intelligence officer and two combat veterans, Carter's announcement that the military was open to transgender people like himself marked the official end of years of ambiguity.

“I thought I would be relieved that it wasn't as emotional as it was,” said Peace, a career soldier whose dog tags are tattooed on his left shoulder with the blue, pink and white stripes of the transgender pride flag.

“I had to put my transgenderism before who I am,” he said. “Now I can be a soldier first, an officer, a woman and everything else, and let my transsexuality take a back seat.” “Now I can be a soldier first, officer first, female first and everything in between.”

Tear down barriers

The Pentagon's decision in late June to open the military's ranks to transgender people was based on a months-long study by RAND, which looked at costs and numbers. The researchers estimate that between 1,320 and 6,730 transgender men and women are already on active duty, a fraction of 1% of the total military workforce.

The cost of allowing them to serve openly and use military health services would be “extremely small” as a percentage of military spending. It is likely that no more than 140 active duty service members a year would be referred for sex reassignment hormone therapy; even fewer would be referred for sex reassignment surgery.

Researchers estimate that this would add between $2.4 million and $8.4 million to the military's annual health budget of more than $6 billion. It would also limit when and where 25 to 130 active-duty soldiers could be deployed each year. By comparison, the Army alone has 50,000 active-duty soldiers who cannot be deployed for other reasons.

“So these are very small, very small numbers,” said Agnes Gereben Schaefer, lead author of the study and a senior researcher at RAND. The study is the latest commissioned by RAND for the military to remove barriers to long service. RAND's study on opening service to gays and lesbians led to the repeal of the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy in 2011. More recently, RAND reports helped the Pentagon make the decision to allow women to participate in combat.

“All of our work in all of these areas has shown that if an outside group does the work, it's really important,” said Schaefer, who was involved in all three lines of research. “If people believe you can do the work, you earn their respect and they feel you support them.”

“If an outside group can do the work, that's what really matters. If people believe you can do the job, you earn their respect and they feel you're there for them.”

Not Pronouns, Performance

That's what motivated Shane Ortega. She served in Iraq as a Marine, as a woman, for two tours of duty, and then another in Afghanistan, as a soldier, as a man. He believes his willingness to push himself and walk allowed him to stay in the military and be one of the first openly transgender active duty service members. 70 pounds? He kicked 90, chest down.

“It's exhausting when you have to fight every day just to be identified by the right pronoun,” he said, before citing the example of what happened when he was invited to speak at the Pentagon. His superiors first told him to put on a woman's blouse, referring to military regulations and the gender still on his military ID card. He was so cramped he couldn't raise his hand to salute.

“This is something you can't miss,” said Ortega, who ended up donning a camouflage uniform for meetings at the Pentagon and has since left the military. He added that lifting the ban “has to be done gently.” It's not easy: “You have to buy a new uniform. It's about people's lives.” Eighteen countries already allow transgender people to serve in the military, including close U.S. allies Australia, Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom.

RAND researchers found that, in these countries, unit cohesion, operational effectiveness or overall readiness would not be “significantly affected” after opening these ranks. However, their experience-and in particular the challenges they faced-offers some difficult lessons for U.S. military leaders now charged with implementing transgender service standards.

For example, some of the foreign soldiers interviewed by RAND reported bullying or harassment of transgender soldiers, underscoring the need for leadership training and zero tolerance. The researchers also found that it was easy to stumble over details: for example, can medals and decorations earned before transition be re-awarded under a new name after transition?

Transgender service: numerical data

The RAND study provided the Pentagon with the most rigorous and unbiased estimates of the costs and consequences of allowing transgender men and women to serve openly.

  • 1 320 – 6 630: estimated transgender men and women are currently serving on active duty (out of 1.3 million)
  • 25-130: Active duty soldiers with deployment restrictions due to transition-related medical treatment.

Eighteen other countries already allow transgender people to serve in the military:

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bolivia
  • Canada
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Israel
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

Focus on the task

The Pentagon issued an 18-page policy memo when it lifted the transgender ban, which began to address some of these issues. For example, it requires recruits to wear uniforms, housing and military bathrooms that match the gender on their military ID card, which can be changed with a doctor's order. Defense Secretary Carter also said the military will improve its procedures and train its troops next year.

“Our mission is to protect this country,” he said in announcing the end of the ban, “and we don't want barriers unrelated to a person's qualifications to prevent us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine best suited for that mission.”

In other words, someone like Phyllis Frye. In 1970, she seemed like the ideal military woman: she had earned an elite ROTC scholarship, trained as an engineer, was dedicated to a military career…and to a man.

When the military discovered she was transgender, they sent her to a hypnotist who made her vomit when she dressed as a woman. She tried drugs so powerful they blurred her vision. She eventually agreed to be discharged from the service, went back to school, went to law school and is now a widely recognized grandmother in the transgender rights movement.

“You get someone who loves the military, wants to be patriotic and wants to serve their country,” she says now. “What more do you want in a person?”

“The military ruined my life,” he adds. It paid for his education and training, provided housing and health care, “and all you get is about 19 months of active duty.” He believes that if he had been allowed to stay, he would have retired as a lieutenant colonel after more than 30 years of military service. Instead, his military career ended in 1972.

Forty-four years later, another Army officer, Captain Peace, watched live on television from his office as Secretary Carter lifted a ban that threatened to end his career. He and another transgender service member embraced as Carter uttered the words they had long hoped to hear, “Immediately…”

He talks about joining the military and how relieved he is to know he can now have a career; he says he hopes to be promoted to major soon. And then he asks, “Did you see the press conference after Carter's announcement? One of his first questions was not about the cost of healthcare or bathrooms-not at all about transgender people-but about the civil war in Syria.

“This is exactly as it should be,” he says. “The ban could be lifted, but we have more important things to worry about.”

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