After Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, transgender servicemembers face uphill battle

Thursday, January 27th, 2011   Share on Facebook   Share on Twitter

Last April, Autumn Sandeen traveled from San Diego to Washington, D.C., donned her Naval uniform, and handcuffed herself to the White House fence. Eight months later, the civil disobedience paid off: On Dec. 22, President Obama signed a repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” into law, allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military. At Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Obama urged the nation to celebrate the fact that “starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

Still forbidden from military service, though, are people like Autumn Sandeen. Sandeen isn’t gay—she’s transgender. And as the gays and lesbians who joined Sandeen in protest prepare for open military service, trans men and women are being warned to remain in the closet. The National Center for Transgender Equality has advised trans soldiers to “be aware that coming out as transgender will almost certainly end your career in the military, may lead to disciplinary action, and can have other very negative outcomes for you, and your family.” A Department of Defense report on DADT further clarifies the issue: “Transgender and transsexual individuals are not permitted to join the Military Services,” the report reads. “The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has no effect on these policies.”

“Of everyone who went on the fence that day, I risked the most,” says Sandeen, who carefully calibrated her military career to avoid being punished for her gender identity. Sandeen served in the Navy for 20 years as a man; only upon retirement did she confess her identity issues to a counselor and begin living her life openly as a woman. Now an LGBT activist, Sandeen regularly submits herself to abuse for the greater community’s causes. After law enforcement officers removed her from the White House fence, Sandeen says she was openly mocked as a “shim” and an “impersonator,” then locked up in a holding cell with men. “As a pre-operative transgender woman,” Sandeen says, “jail is not exactly fun.”

And yet, this past November, Sandeen again handcuffed herself to the White House fence in the hopes of ending DADT. “I am definitely planning on using that in the future,” Sandeen says. “I’m going to hold LGBT activists accountable for what they are going to do next.”

Sandeen will need the leverage. “The transgender portion of the LGBT community is extremely small. We do not have a deep bench,” Sandeen explains. And with other trans activists working to end employment discrimination, ensure health care access, and prevent hate crimes, that leaves few figures to face off against the U.S. military alongside her: “If I don’t do it, there is literally nobody else that is going to do it,” Sandeen says. So  her gay and lesbian allies better remember her stints on the fence: “I’m either going to inspire them to stand up for our community,” Sandeen says, “or I’m going to shame them into doing it.”

So far, Sandeen’s shame hasn’t inspired much action from the broader community. The most committed opponents of DADT are still consumed with issues related to its repeal. “The law hasn’t gone away, so we’re waiting right now,” says Aaron Tax, legislative director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Victory on DADT has created plenty of work for the SLDN: The organization is currently working on encouraging a swift implementation of the new policy, figuring out how to reinstate members of the military discharged for being gay, and lobbying to achieve equal benefits for spouses and partners of gay military members.

Even when that work is done, it’s unlikely that trans military service will inspire the whirlwind national campaign that was launched for DADT. “This is not something that will be as high-profile as DADT,” says Tax. Because trans people are considered “unfit” for military service for medical reasons—due to either a diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” or a history of genital surgery—establishing a place for them in the U.S. military may require a more delicate approach. “Changing military policy takes time,” the NCTE said in a statement. “We are building the arguments—based on modern medicine and mental health care—to address the wrong and outdated way that the military considers transgender people as unfit to serve.” In the meantime, the SLDN is pulling at straws. “Certain medical issues can be waived by the U.S. military,” Tax says. “I don’t know of any trans people who have successfully gotten a waiver, but we are always happy to help servicemembers make the attempt.”

Heather Cronk, managing director of Get Equal, agrees that the trans campaign—if it comes—will “look entirely different” from DADT’s. “Once you start working within the confines of a closed institution like the Pentagon, they don’t really care about majority opinion,” Cronk says. “This won’t be a matter of changing hearts and minds—it will be about exacerbating the problems of discriminating. We’re going to point out all the places where gender discrimination is happening in the military, and try to pry those weaknesses open.”

And DADT’s success may have created the trans campaign’s first opening. “I was sickened that trans inclusion was compromised out of the legislation by other LGBT groups,” Cronk says. So after DADT’s repeal, Get Equal sent a message to its supporters urging further action. She’s hoping that the momentum from DADT will encourage activists to keep fighting discrimination in the U.S. military. “Once you open that door a crack,” Cronk says, “it becomes easier to open it a little bit more.”

For some trans activists, DADT was more like a slam. “The more that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was talked about and acted upon, the less they wanted to be concerned about us,” says Monica Helms, head of the Transgender American Veterans Association. “Now, I see all this celebration. Everyone is patting each other on the back, and we’re saying, ‘Hello? Hello? What about us?’” Helms says she plans to continue fighting for trans inclusion in the military, but she does not expect to succeed. “I don’t think anyone is going to pay attention to this,” Helms says.

Sandeen holds slightly more positive view. “I’m optimistic and pessimistic both at the same time,” she says. “All I know is I’m going to be there. I’m in for the long haul. I’m out for life.”

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