Transgender Life in the US Military

Brynn Tannehill has been a guest author at The New Civil Right Movement this past week, writing about transgender people in the military.  She published articles on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Tannehill is a former Navy pilot and also writes for the Huffington Post.

On Monday she published the title essay, After DADT: Transgender Life In The United States Military.  

Most people, including many within the LGBT community (including some very prominent LGBT leaders), were or still are unaware that the end of DADT did not end the exclusion of transgender people from military service.  There is no law preventing transgender individuals from serving.  However, being transgender is still grounds for “rejection for military service.”

There is a Department of Defense instruction document, DoDI 6130.03, which determines that the state of one’s genitalia are a determining factor on one’s acceptability into the service.

14 Female Genitalia

f: History of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia including but not limited to change of sex (P64.5) (CPT 55970, 55980), hermaphroditism, pseudohermaphroditism, or pure gonadal dysgenesis (752.7).

15 Male Genitalia

f: History of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia including but not limited to change of sex (P64.5) (CPT 55970, 55980), hermaphroditism, pseudohermaphroditism, or pure gonadal dysgenesis (752.7).

29.r: Current or history of psychosexual conditions (302) including but not limited to transexualism (sic), exhibitionism, transvestitism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias.

One might ask why, exactly, the state of a person’s genitals affects that person’s ability to serve.  

The exclusion of transgender people from the military is three-fold.  First is the basis of needing intact gonads on the basis that the service does not need the added burden of maintaining an individual’s endocrine system.  The second is the psychiatric rationale that Gender Identity Disorder (GID), as defined by the DSM-IV, is a mental disorder.  The last, unstated assumption is that having openly transgender people would be prejudicial to good order and discipline.

While each of these rationales is demonstrably false, overcoming them is extremely difficult due to public stigmatization of the transgender community.

Each branch of the service has their own policy for administratively separating transgender service members.  Waivers for transgender are not granted.  On the other hand waivers for pedophilia, voyeurism and bestiality are granted.

That certainly shows everyone where we stand.

Military therapists are required to turn in anyone who is transgender.  Thus many transgender service members pay for counseling outside of the military health system.  That’s a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 92:  Violating a standing order.

Those of us who are familiar with Firesign Theater call the UCMJ by the sobriquet, the Secret Code of Military Toughness.

The APA has recently stated, “It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder.  The critical element of gender dys­phoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.”

The military has yet to care.

Many military psychologists and therapists are already viewing the issue this way.  Increasingly the active duty transgender people I know are telling me that therapists are following professional standards over military ones, reasoning that there is no reason to kick out someone who is consistently doing well at their jobs. It’s easy to see why.


Tannehill says she knows over 100 active duty military personnel who are excelling in their careers.

Some transgender service members have leadership willing to turn a blind eye to the situation because they don’t see a need to lose a top performing Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine. Others have found acceptance from their peers. Often the most disapproving people in the military are the people who are supposed to be the most accepting: Chaplains. Increasingly, the situation for transgender people in the military looks like it did for lesbians and gays during the final decade of DADT.


Tuesday and Wednesday brought personal stories of some of those serving transpeople.

Tuesday:  Living In Fear, But Coming Out As Transgender In The Navy

“Michelle” is a transwoman who currently serves in U.S. Navy with support from her supervisors.  She shares her story with The New Civil Rights Movement via guest author Brynn Tannehill.

After DADT I researched the policies, and what I found out made me feel like I had been left behind. It was like the open service ship left the pier and I was still standing there wondering, “Why?”

That was two years ago.  My need to transition has only intensified since then. Along the way, though, I made a fateful choice.  I reenlisted.

If I had not I would have been out of the Navy by now.  I would be living authentically.  Yet, I am still here.  Ultimately, I couldn’t walk away from a promising career, a job I love, and the sense of purpose and service it gives me.


“Michelle”‘s department head knows what’s up.  And so does her XO, whose response was, “I have enough to worry about with all the people who can’t or won’t do their jobs.  Why the hell should I get rid of someone who’s doing their job really well?”

Wednesday:  Transgender Life In The US Military: Hiding In Plain Sight

Guest author Brynn Tannehill shares the stories of three transgender members of the U.S. military and how they hide in plain sight, especially as transmen.

Legally, transgender people in the military are still at a point similar to the implementation of DADT in 1993.  Being transgender is still considered a mental disorder with atypical sexual interests by the military medical system, much like homosexuality was viewed in 1941 for more than 50 years.  Yet somehow there are transgender people who are hiding in plain sight.  They deny nothing and are out to significant numbers of people within their unit.  This sort of situation would have been almost unthinkable in the 1980s for lesbian, gay, or bisexual people in the military, but anecdotally this situation seems to be increasingly common for transgender military people.


Tannehill profiles three transgender service members.

“Jake” is an active duty junior officer and, as a transman, has been on prescribed testosterone for almost a year.  He changed his name to a masculine one last summer…and also had chest surgery while on transit between units.  

I sat down with the First Sergeant, and he hinted he already knew what was going on.  I told him the official story is that I am a lesbian.  The unofficial story is that I am a transgender man and I go by male pronouns outside of work.  The First Sergeant took the position that he was okay with it, and it was none of his business anyway.  But said we needed to talk to the Captain very soon.

My First Sergeant and I sat down with the Captain shortly afterwards.  We gave her the same official and unofficial positions.  She (the Captain) had been feeling the same awkwardness about the situation as others.  She seemed to look at it the same way the First Sergeant did, and seemed concerned about making sure I understood the risks.  But she seemed willing to just let it ride for now.

The troops are good with it.  They steer away from pronouns and just call me “LT.”  I have been surprised by how accepting younger folks are in the military and in the civilian world.  They’re much more accepting than the previous generation.  I’m just thankful for the support I have had.


“Mick” is an enlisted transman on active duty.  He is not out to the chain of command above his supervisor.  But everyone in his shop knows.  He has also been on testosterone for nearly a year.  People noticed the changes after a few months.  It was then she had to sit down with the supervisor.

She was supportive, and mostly seemed concerned with making sure I was doing this safely.  I told the shop one by one, and got a good feeling from all of them.  Sometimes, I would try to gauge their reactions before I told them about being trans by telling them I was dating another trans man.

I was a good performer before, but I have gotten even better since then.  Better physically, my relationships at work have improved, guys at work feel more comfortable around me, and matured a lot in the process.  It’s worked out well for me.

We see officers maybe two to three times a month.  They haven’t given any hint they have an idea, and if they do they’re doing a great job ignoring it.


On the other hand, Jessica is a transwoman.  She is now living as her target gender full time.  She transferred to the National Guard when she left active duty.  Now a civilian, she works as a contractor at a large base with sensitive materials, working side-by-side with active duty personnel.

Jessica had been a “stellar performer” while on active duty.  

When she left she was at junior enlisted rank, holding down the workload of two high ranking senior sergeants who had retired on active duty.  Jessica believes this had a great deal to do with why her chain of command chose to let it go when she told them six months prior to the end of her time that she was transgender and beginning transition.


On active duty, they just ignored being trans and on hormone replacement therapy.  As long as I met male standards for physical readiness training and hair they were happy with my work.  Even though I did push the envelope with my hair.

When she joined the Guard, a sympathetic officer handled her paperwork and swearing in.  Both her sergeant and junior officer leadership thought her impressive background outweighed her “gender issues.”  Everyone worked around the situation.

But it all went pear-shaped.  

Senior leadership above the local level seemed willing to ignore the transgender issue, but insisted on strict adherence to male grooming standards.  Unfortunately, because Jessica lives as a woman full time in her professional life, this created an intractable situation.  She has transitioned at work already, and a “high and tight” – the iconic military buzz cut – wouldn’t help her professional image.

I got the feeling that a certain Major in particular was really trying to stick it to me and was looking to humiliate me with the whole haircut thing, then progressively segregating me from the unit by ordering me not to wear my uniform anymore… (then) to hide me away from the rest of the unit by keeping me in the NCO (non-commissioned officer) office until everyone else started sticking up for me.  Either way, cutting my hair or not he wanted me out.


The Major is in his late 30s, early 40s.  He told me he was upset because I had caused him to, ‘dig through regulations for the past week in order to figure out how to deal with you.’   He told me that he already had a hard enough time figuring out how to segregate the gay soldiers from the straight soldiers when it comes to matters of barracks space, tents, showers or whatever.  That he feels mixing the two together will create sexual tension problems.  Then he told me that I made that situation even worse.  ‘Where would I put you?  With the gay males because you’re a male?  Or with the gay females because you’re trying to be a girl?  Do I need five different accommodations for soldiers or six?  When does it stop?  These are the things I have to address because of all this.


Jessica was surprised about the reaction of most of her unit, who thought the way she was being treated was totally unfair.  Some of them apologized for the way she was being treated.

The system is designed to catch trans people.  This can go on for a while, but eventually it catches up with them; usually when changing commands.  I think we are going to encounter more of these situations, as we did during DADT, where commands will turn a blind eye towards service members that they want to retain until a situation or higher level of the chain of command forces action.

–Paula Neira, OutServe-SLDN

As a general matter, there are several people serving ‘openly’ (to a degree) while their commands turn a blind eye.  That is wonderful, but I share Paula’s assessment that the system is very likely to catch up to those members at some point.  The goal there is to make sure they’re not exposed to any risk of disciplinary action if it does.

–David McKean, OutServe-SLDN

CYA.  That’s the military’s number one objective.

I think it is easier for me as a female to male transman.  It always seems like the feminine is a lot more scrutinized.  No one takes on a lesbian for being too masculine.


The other commonality between all the stories of trans people serving fairly openly is that they have been surprised at how accepting younger people are about being transgender in comparison with the previous generation.  This mirrors polling data which shows that Generation X is more accepting than Baby Boomers of LGB people, and members of Generation Y are even more so than Generation X.  This shift in attitudes seems to bleed over to transgender people as well.

This leads to the most important question.  Could rank-and-file acceptance, or at least tolerance, of transgender people in the military be as big a non-issue as LGB was?  Anecdotal evidence suggests so.



    • Robyn on August 10, 2013 at 00:04

    …often fails to penetrate to places that personal stories seem to be able to go.

    At least that is the hope.

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