‘Serving in Silence’

10.21.14 1:13 AM ET

Yes to LGB, No to T: The Pentagon Still Has a Transgender Ban

The end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell let gays, lesbians, and bisexuals serve openly in the military. But transgender individuals remain excluded. A conference Monday examined that policy.

Three years after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the “T” in LGBT seems to have been left behind in military policy. Unlike gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, openly transgender individuals can be kicked out of the military if their true identity becomes known.

But any possible doubt about the suitability of transgender individuals for military service wouldn’t survive a meeting with Kristin Beck.

Beck spent 20 years in military special operations, enduring 13 deployments and earning a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a SEAL Trident. She worked with SEAL Team Six and retired with the rank of senior chief.

She’s also a transgender veteran who transitioned after she left military service.

“I was in the middle of the toughest of the tough as a Navy SEAL. And I could still do that today, as a female,” she said Monday, speaking deliberately and stirringly. “Females are strong. Females chew tobacco and smoke cigars. They lift weights.”

She let a moment of silence slip by. “I still have the ability to kick ass.”

There’s no doubt on that point. When she was done speaking at the Perspectives on Transgender Military Service From Around the Globe conference, hosted by the ACLU and the Palm Center, there was absolute silence.

Featuring transgender service members from all over the world, Monday’s conference examined the Pentagon’s policy of excluding openly transgender individuals from serving in the military and highlighted the experiences of transgender troops from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden.

Earlier this year, a study written by a former U.S. surgeon general and a retired admiral estimated that some 14,450 transgender personnel are actively serving in the U.S. military.

These people, Beck said, are “serving in silence, serving in their own personal anguish, their own personal pain.”

Unlike Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the prohibition on openly transgender service members is a Pentagon policy rather than a law. But Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell also prohibited senior officers from questioning the sexual orientation of those under their command. There’s no rule protecting transgender service members now.

Landon Wilson, a U.S. Navy cryptologic technician, returned from Afghanistan in 2013 to a promotion for good work. But even as he was receiving awards, the military brass was processing his discharge—they had found out he was transgender.

Wilson had paid out of pocket to transition from female to male and had enlisted in 2011, believing that the military would be more accepting after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Pentagon has made enormous strides with the LGBT community, even celebrating LGBT pride month this past June. But it wouldn’t accept him.

“I’m a sailor before I’m transgender. I joined the military to be part of the organization the military is. I grew up in a military town…to me the most natural option was to join the service,” said Wilson, now on the board of SPART*A, a group that represents some 250 active-duty transgender service members. “There’s not a day that passes that I don’t think about rejoining the service, so I look forward to the day when that’s a possibility.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in May that he was open to a review of Department of Defense instruction 6130.03, which bars those with “psychosexual conditions... including but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias” from serving the military.

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But Hagel just as quickly shut down the suggestion, saying he was disinclined to review the policy formally.

The Pentagon is continuing the ban, a defense official told The Daily Beast, out of concern that transgender service members would lack the “ability to deploy to and serve in austere environments with limited [and perhaps no] access to medical care for prolonged periods on little or no notice.”

Beck and transgender foreign troops at Monday’s conference scoffed at that justification. The military can provide diabetics and those with high blood pressure with necessary medical supplies before sending them into “austere environments,” they said, so why can’t they do the same for transgender service members?

The treatment of transgender service members in the military was given a national spotlight by Chelsea Manning, the soldier convicted of espionage for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. The day after her court sentencing, she announced that she is female and is now suing the government to receive hormone replacement therapy.

For transgender individuals with military experience, there are deeply conflicting emotions about Manning.

On the one hand, said Wilson, Manning “did more for transgender military service in 2013 than anyone else did. It gave a name and gave a reason [for the public] to have an interest in this cause.” On the other hand, he said, “Her actions certainly don’t characterize the service made by other trans service members.”

Added Beck: “Chelsea Manning I like and want to support. Pvt. Manning, on the other hand, I don’t like how that came about… a whistleblower doesn’t give out 700,000 documents [indiscriminately]… some of those documents were very damaging and didn’t help anyone.”

The bottom line, say advocates for openly transgender individuals to serve in the military, is respect for those who choose to join the armed forces. Hagel’s remarks, though later tempered, are a sign of progress.

“People are talking about open trans service for the first time in years,” Wilson said.

Service members are professionals, these advocates argue, and they’ll do their jobs—regardless of whether they are transgender or serving with someone who is.

“It’s a fight for who we are as human beings,” Beck said. “As a human being, do I deserve to be me?”