As Pentagon mulls ending ban, transgender soldiers talk about serving country openly

With an estimated 15,000 transgender soldiers now serving throughout the US military, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on Monday called the military's ban 'outdated' and 'confusing.'

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Defense Secretary Ash Carter testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 7.

When Kristin Beck was a Navy SEAL for 20 years, and known as a fighter named Christopher, her transgender identity was “maybe third or fourth or fifth down the list of things that were concerning me.”

A decorated veteran of seven combat missions and a member of the famed special counterterrorism unit SEAL Team Six, Ms. Beck was part of the one of the most elite fighting forces in the world, the “toughest of the tough,” the former senior chief says, before leaving the Navy in 2011.

“My primary concern was service to my country, to defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to defend my nation,” says Beck. “At the time, the more important objective was service to the country, and so I was able to put aside my own personal gender struggle.”

On Monday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon would begin a six-month process to consider ending the ban on transgender soldiers like Beck, who began the transition to become a woman after her tours of duty. For the past two years, she also has helped advise the White House and Pentagon on the policy changes it will consider as the process unfolds.

When the military’s top brass made the announcement, the Pentagon was in many ways simply responding to a military culture that already had begun to change from the bottom up, military experts say.

Indeed, with an estimated 15,000 transgender soldiers now serving throughout the US military’s branches, those in command at the ground level, from the leaders of basic units to the commanding officers of larger brigades, already have been working through the challenges of adjusting to a more diverse fighting force, including those that arise from a soldier’s gender identity. 

These quiet changes have been happening even as the military’s traditionally conservative, male culture has adapted to the nation’s seismic shifts in attitudes toward homosexuality, including this year’s historic Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land. And after watching the relatively seamless transition to a force that since 2011 has allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly – something most other allied nations, including Israel, have long allowed – many observers do not see a difficult policy change ahead.

“It seems to me that this decision naturally flows from the relatively easy implementation of the removal of the gay ban, and the increasing integration of women into positions that bring them into combat,” says Donald Haider-Markel, professor and chair of the political science department at Kansas University, an expert on transgender policy who is currently studying women serving in special forces jobs. “Certainly there are challenges, and discrimination is likely to still occur, but this isn't the mountain some make it out to be. I suspect this will be fully implemented by this time next year.” 

Since the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011, gays and lesbians have been able to serve openly for almost four years. Transgender soldiers, however, have been mired in uncertainty, officials say, caught within one of the last official bans on a specific class of people – a ban Secretary Carter on Monday said was “outdated” and “causing uncertainty that distracts commanders from our core missions.”

For many in the military, the concern about transgender soldiers has long been about unit cohesion and fighting readiness – the deep trust and close cooperation essential for every small unit, who must work and potentially fight shoulder to shoulder in the trenches. And transgender soldiers could upset this cohesiveness, critics say.

And the military also has to consider policies about health care and the medical costs of transitioning to another gender, how to quarter soldiers on bases or ships, as well as what kind of physical requirements should be required for transgender people.

Earlier this year, army officials for the first time approved the male-to-female transition of Chelsea Manning, the transgender soldier currently serving time in the Fort Leavenworth Army prison after being convicted of espionage in 2013 after sending classified government documents to WikiLeaks.

“The profession of arms is ... ancient and resilient, and our military culture can absorb multiple cultural blows and still maintain a high degree of professional excellence, but we can’t keep making decisions dictated by ideology over military necessity and believe there will be no meaningful battlefield consequence,” wrote David French at the conservative magazine National Review.

“With each Obama administration move, from the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to the expansion of women’s roles in the combat arms, and now to genderqueer troops, the term ‘social justice warrior’ does indeed mean something new every day,” Mr. French continued. 

But so far, most voices of opposition have been few, and experts say that the same arguments of unit cohesion and combat readiness had been used to justify the racial segregation of the military before President Truman ordered the nation’s armed forces integrated in 1948.

And, advocates say, the reality is that some units already have practical knowledge on how to integrate transgender soldiers.

“I think that the very senior military leaders in the Pentagon are learning from the small unit leaders and company commanders about this issue, and not the other way around,” says Brenda "Sue" Fulton, president of SPARTA, an advocacy coalition of current and former LGBT soldiers, and part of the first class of women to enter West Point in 1980. “You’d be surprised at how many transgender service members are already out to their commands, and are quietly working out ways to both have their own personal integrity and continue to serve.”

 Military experts note, too, that for young soldiers in their teens and early 20s, and even a generation of officers in their early 30s, “issues of sexuality and gender identity are not as difficult as they were for people of my generation,” says Ms. Fulton, a former commander of a military intelligence company in Germany who resigned in 1986 rather than hide the fact that she was a lesbian.

“Conventional wisdom within the military is that the repeal of 'don’t ask, don’t tell' killed the ‘unit cohesion’ argument for good,” Fulton adds. “It simply wasn’t proven out,” she says, noting that the military’s data shows that diverse groups perform complex missions significantly better than homogeneous groups.

After 14 years of war, Carter also noted, the nation’s armed forces have learned a lot about who can serve in the military, from experiences of current combat technologies as well as the aftermath of policies to eliminate sexual assault and open up ground combat positions for women.

“At a time when our troops have learned from experience that the most important qualification for service members should be whether they're able and willing to do their job, our officers and enlisted personnel are faced with certain rules that tell them the opposite,” Carter said. “Moreover, we have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines – real, patriotic Americans – who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that's contrary to our value of service and individual merit.”

Greg Abbink, now an officer with the Austin Police Department, was a Russian-language specialist known as Emily when he served with the Army more than a decade ago – a voice interceptor with top-secret clearance when he was part of the Joint Operations Task Force at Fort Hood in Texas.

“As a former member of the US Army, I swore an oath to my country to uphold the Constitution, and in essence, be willing to give my life for the freedom of the men and women in this great nation,” Officer Abbink, a former sergeant, says via e-mail.   

“If someone is willing to fight on the front lines to preserve the democracy of our country, I think our military leaders need to recognize the sacrifice that ALL those in the military are willing to make and to work to ensure those that fight for freedom are guaranteed a safe and respectful place in which to serve,” he continues.

Beck, the former Navy Seal, however, says it still may take some time before the conservative culture of the military fully adjusts to the presence of open transgender soldiers.

“Going down the line, you’re going to change the policy, you're going to change the writing on a piece of paper, but it’s really difficult to change people’s minds, and so that’s where all the struggle is going to be,” says Beck,  who is running for Congress in Maryland’s 5th District ..  

Neither she nor Abbink was “out” as a transgender sailor or soldier during their tours of duty, and neither saw their roles as activists for change. But they insist they should be treated as any other person who seeks to serve their country.

“If you take a hard look at it, I’m an American, I’m a citizen, and I served the military with honor as a transgender person,” says Beck. “If you see me on the street, I’m not running around with rainbows and unicorns, I’m just a regular person. So if you meet me, you’re going to realize that, yeah, this isn’t really that big of a deal.”

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