Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said he would be “open” to re-examining the military’s ban on transgender people’s openly serving in the armed forces.
“I do think it should be continuously reviewed,” he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday, referring to the military’s medical policy barring transgender people from service. “I’m open to that, by the way.”
Hagel did not definitively say whether he thought the ban should be reversed. But he added that while some troops serving in remote areas don’t always have the proper “medical attention” that transgender service members might need, “every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have the opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.”
Although the United States lifted its longtime “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which barred gay and lesbian people from openly serving in the military, in 2010, that change applied to sexual orientation, not gender identity.
Current U.S. military standards of medical fitnesss disqualify from service individuals with a “history of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia such as change of sex” or with “psychosexual conditions,” including “transvestitism” and “gender identity disorder.”
In other words, the Pentagon categorizes transgender identity as a psychological disorder and bars from service anyone who may have had surgery related to transgender identity.
A March 2014 report from the Palm Center (PDF), a think tank at San Francisco State University, said that nontransgender troops’ medical needs, such as antidepressants and other psychological treatments, were no more extensive than the needs of transgender troops.
“We find that there is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service and that eliminating the ban would advance a number of military interests, including enabling commanders to better care for their service members,” said the report, which was co-authored by Dr. Jocelyn Elders, a former U.S. surgeon general under President Bill Clinton.
The American Psychiatric Association in 2012 removed the term “gender identity disorder” from the DSM-V, the latest edition of the official manual of psychiatric disorders used by mental health professionals for diagnoses. Instead, the DSM-V refers to “gender dysphoria” (PDF), which some transgender rights advocates prefer because of its more understanding tone. That’s because the manual says that “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder” and adds that “the critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.”
Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, who is serving 35 years in prison for leaking classified documents to National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, announced her gender preference in August 2013. While a judge recently granted Manning a name change — she was previously known as Bradley, and her gender dysphoria was confirmed by the Army — the military will not grant her the hormone treatments she requested and will continue to refer to Manning as male.
Allyson Robinson, an independent expert in military personnel policy and a policy director at SPARTA, an LGBT military advocacy group, said the review is long overdue.
“The policies under which the Department of Defense continues to operate were instituted at a time when Secretary Hagel was Sgt. Hagel,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to Hagel’s military service in the late 1960s. “That is how old these policies are. And the understanding of the medical and mental health communities has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1970s.”
Robinson, a 1994 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served as an Army commander in Germany and the Middle East, working with the Patriot missile system and as an air defense trainer for NATO.
But she said that for her entire career, she struggled with her feelings of gender dysphoria. Robinson was born male but, she said, knew viscerally that she was female. She kept her transgender identity closeted while in the military, battling intense feelings of fear and shame, even while married to Danyelle, a fellow West Point classmate.
Her experience as a transgender soldier “was one of, frankly, terror,” Robinson told Al Jazeera. “I was terrified that people in my unit or in my chain of command would find out about it. And I had certainty that if they did, that I would be summarily be drummed out of the service and that I would likely experience a lot of harassment and discrimination and maybe even violence as that process was taking place.”
So she remained in the closet. About five years after leaving active duty, the pain and shame she felt about her transgender identity became so overwhelming that she considered suicide. Everything else in her life had been going swimmingly, she said; she was earning a graduate degree and had a fantastic job, and her wife had recently given birth to their fourth child. “Despite all of that, the pain was so great that [suicide] seemed a logical course of action,” she said.
It was then that Robinson made the transition into becoming a woman and became active in LGBT advocacy, working first with the Human Rights Campaign and then as the executive director of Outserve-SLDN, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBT active duty service members and veterans.
The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in the Netherlands, ranked the United States 40th out of 103 countries in its inaugural ranking of militaries on the basis of LGBT inclusiveness, placing it behind Cuba, Chile and Georgia.
Countries such as New Zealand, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, where transgender soldiers have been serving for years, topped the list.
“When you look at 2010 and the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ in many ways, we did something that we in the military never do — we left some people behind,” Robinson said, referring to the fact that ending that policy did not apply to transgender people.
She added, “It’s right and it’s good that we would begin now to remedy that situation and to help DOD be the inclusive agency that it says it wants to be.”