By Wesley Juhl
Transgender men and women from the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Canada wore their military uniforms Monday at the American Civil Liberties Union building.
But Navy veteran Landon Wilson didn’t wear a uniform. Few service members from the U.S. did.
While the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly was repealed three years ago, the U.S. doesn’t allow people who are transgender in the military – unlike many of the country’s biggest military allies.
Wilson joined soldiers, sailors and airmen from around the world for a conference on transgender military service put on by the ACLU and the San Francisco-based Palm Center. Speakers compared the military policies of other countries. People who are transgender shared their stories.
Wilson joined the Navy in spite of issues with his birth gender, because he wanted to serve his country, he said.
“I’m a sailor before I’m transgender,” he said.
Born female and transitioning to a man, Wilson passed under the radar when he deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. He said he expected some awkward situations when he enlisted as a woman, but dressed in a man’s uniform from the start.
He found himself taking a mandatory pregnancy test in a men’s restroom.
“Not once did anyone question my gender or who I was,” he said. “It wasn’t their place.”
Wilson said he was just one of the guys. He worked in military intelligence as the lead liaison between his unit and its international partners.
He said he got his hormone replacement medication from a civilian doctor, so the Navy didn’t know.
He was up for a promotion when his superior pulled him aside.
“One of the first things he said to me was ‘I need to know what you are,’” Wilson said.
“Your paperwork here says female, but you certainly don’t look like one,” his sergeant told him.
Within hours he was heading back to the U.S., Wilson said.
“The same time they were handing me awards, they were processing my discharge paperwork,” he said.
Now Wilson serves on the board of directors for SPART*A, an LGBT organization for active military personnel.
“A lot of the discrimination within the military right now is a lack of education,” Wilson said. “If you can never speak openly about who you are or your experience as a trans individual, no one gets to learn anything.”
He said he gets messages every day from young people who may identify as transgender who ask about the military. He said he knows of 250 transgender people currently serving in secret.
In May, the UCLA School of Law’s William Institute estimated much higher numbers. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-focused think tank estimated there are 8,800 transgender adults on active duty plus about 6,700 serving in the Guard or Reserve forces.
Combined with estimates for veterans, the number of transgender people in the military or retired is nearly 150,000, the study said.
The Netherland’s Hague Centre for Strategic Studies ranked more than a hundred countries on their military’s inclusiveness to LGBT people.
The U.S. ranked 40th – far below the country’s Western military allies. New Zealand, Netherlands, the U.K., Sweden, Australia and Canada ranked first through sixth, respectively. All of those countries allow transgender people to serve openly and give them the medical support they require.
Flight Lt. Caroline Paige of the Royal Air Force was the first transgender woman to serve openly in the U.K. She joined the air force as a man in 1980. When she transitioned in 1998, the RAF let her stay.
Paige has since been awarded three commendations and completed seven tours flying battle helicopters and training. She’s been deployed to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan as a woman.
“I was very aware there was a high risk of me being chucked out of the military,” she said. “At the time, transgender service wasn’t permitted.”
Paige’s base commander fought for her to stay.
“Fortunately, although there wasn’t anybody to turn to or get guidance or help, what I did have was leadership,” she said.
Several speakers at the conference said that allowing soldiers to be open about who they are is good for the military. Many, like Paige, said it was more cost-efficient to let them change sexes than it was to train a new recruit with similar technical skills.
Speakers also explained that gender dysphoria, the anxiety caused by having a sex assigned at birth that doesn’t fit with their gender identity, made them less efficient soldiers. Every speaker said their performance improved after transitioning.
Unlike Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which was a federal law, the U.S. military’s transgender service ban is an internal regulation, said Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBT and AIDS projects.
The Department of Defense’s medical requirements prohibit anyone with a “history of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia,” including “change of sex.”
“The ban on trans people serving is actually going to be a lot easier to repeal than Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Block said. “They’re just regulations. They could be just lifted with the stroke of a pen.”
Several speakers at the conference said they hope the policy could change soon and pointed to remarks made earlier this year by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Hagel said he would consider changing the policy during a TV interview in May, but he was worried about medical issues and deployment into difficult regions.
“The issue of transgender is a bit more complicated, because it has a medical component to it,” he said. Yet “every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.”
Reporter Wesley Juhl can be reached at email@example.com.