The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ( DADT ) may be a win for gay and lesbian service members, but for some in the LGBT community, the celebration is bittersweet.
Despite the repeal, transgender people will not be allowed to serve openly. That is because military medical rules deem transgender people unfit to serve.
"This is a non-event for the trans community," said June LaTrobe, a U.S. Air Force veteran who lives in Chicago. " [ The repeal ] is great. It's wonderful… but there is no direct benefit to individuals who are comfortable identifying as transgender."
While a handful of transgender people have been dismissed under DADT in the past, experts say those decisions had more to do with a lack of understanding about what transgender is, rather than the driving policy. Most transgender people are dismissed for a myriad of other reasons. "It's disallowed in so many ways," said Mara Keisling, executive director at that National Center for Transgender Equality ( NCTE ) . "There's a zillion ways that they don't want us in."
A diagnosis of "gender identity disorder" can constitute grounds for medical and mental health dismissal. According to a news statement from NCTE, cross-dressing, taking hormones or accessing medical and mental health care outside of the military can also lead to military discharge. Consequently, transgender service members are not allowed to express gender-variance and cannot come out. Even communication with transgender groups and people can draw suspicion, say activists.
As DADT makes its exit, transgender veterans many of whom have been active in their local LGBT veteran chapterssay they have mixed feelings about the success.
"We were totally supportive of the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" said Monica Helms, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association. "We want to make sure that people know, hey, we're still discriminated against." Gender-variance in U.S. military has been documented since the revolutionary war, as many female-born people dressed as men and marched off to fight.
According to transgender activist and historian Leslie Feinberg, 400 civil war soldiers were also found to have been born female. Among them was Albert Cashier, who fought with the Illinois 95th Division at the battle of Vicksburg and lived his life as male until he died in 1915. Other U.S. soldiers who had been born female lived after wartime as men. Transgender historians believe many of those soldiers who crossdressed to enlist were actually transgender.
Estimates on how many transgender people are currently serving are hard to come by. Activists believe many transgender people remain in hiding in the service, while a number have also been dismissed.
"We've had communications with people that are serving, some even in warzone," said Helms. "So we know that they're there. It's just the brave few that reach out."
Helms believes the service attracts many female- born transgender people because the service is one place where female-born people can express masculinity safely.
Many transgender people enter also the service before they know they are transgender. If they do become gender-aware in the service, they face obstacles in not only coming out, but working through gender issues when such feelings are grounds for dismissal.
Those enlisted cannot share gender identity questions with military doctors or mental health providers, and they are not allowed to seek outside counseling or medical care.
Still, findings suggest that transgender people are twice as likely to serve in the military than
people who are not transgender.
A recent survey by NCTE and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 20 percent of transgender respondents were veterans, compared to the 10 percent found for the general population by the American Community Survey for the same year.
Helms estimates that there are currently at least 300,000 transgender veterans living in the
Still, military issues for transgender people have not been prioritized in LGBT movements. "There was an awareness of the [ transgender ] community," said LaTrobe of gay and lesbian service organizations. "How significant or how meaningful that was I would hesitate to quantify… there was a focus on repealing 'Don't Ask,
Don't Tell." However, it is not only gay and lesbian military
activists who have showed a lack of interest in repealing the ban on transgender people, said Keisling. Transgender communities themselves have not focused on the ban. Transgender people already face employment discrimination, hate-based violence, homelessness and other life-or-death issues at alarming rates, she said.
"This [ ban ] just doesn't rise to the level of emergency," Keisling said.
Younger generations of transgender people may not even know the ban exists at all, say activists. They, too, might believe that the DADT repeal will open the doors for transgender military service.
In an effort to raise awareness about the ban, Helms created a Facebook event and asked people to take a moment silence on Sept. 20 for transgender service members and veterans. More than 2,100 committed to the moment of silence.
Some groups holding DADT repeal celebrations said their parties would take that moment, too. Helms said she was eager for the celebrations. Despite the lack of impact on transgender people, she is excited to see the end of DADT. More than that, she is ready to focus on transgender people in the military.
"After it's over, then the work begins," she said.