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Palm Center's Belkin seeks to end military trans* ban
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer

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One of the many LGBTQ pioneers celebrated by the Legacy Project is Dr. Michael Dillon—noted by the Chicago outdoor museum and youth education program's plaque as "the first person known to have transitioned both hormonally and surgically from female to male." A skilled doctor, he joined the British Merchant Navy in the early fifties. He was outed a few years later and promptly left the service, passing away in 1962.

On August 20, 2014—over half a century after his death—the British newspaper The Daily Mail reported on Deborah Penny—"the first transgender soldier on the front line in British army history," it said. The article went on to detail how Penny had "won the respect of her comrades for her courage." The British, Canadian, Australian, Israeli and Spanish militaries are counted among the countries that allow transgender service members to serve openly. The American military does not.

On the evening the story about Penny broke, prolific author, activist and the founder and Executive Director of the Palm Center Aaron Belkin spoke to a crowded room of people in the gallery of the Keith House in Chicago. Hosted by the Windy City Times and Northern Trust, the discussion was entitled "We Have Waited Long Enough: Open Transgender Service in the U.S. Military."

In his book "How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell", Belkin recalled part of the strategy used to finally put an end to the statute. "Political and military leaders, as well as the public at large, had to be convinced that allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly would not harm the military," he wrote. "It didn't matter that scholars already knew that the Pentagon wasn't telling the truth. The key was to get the American people to understand."

Missing from those conversations were the some 15,500 ( according to Belkin ) transgender service members currently in the various branches of the military.

"The whole [LGB] community—and I include myself—really left the trans* community behind during the Don't Ask Don't Tell ( DADT ) repeal," Belkin told Windy City Times. "That's just not acceptable. As far as I can tell, the ban on transgender service members is the only part of the whole federal government that requires discrimination. It's time to get rid of the trans* ban."

Belkin added that—despite some movement from the Obama administration on the issue—removal of the ban may be a long struggle. "We may be pushing against a house of cards," he said. "The question is—as a community—will enough pressure be generated on the White House to compel them to take action?"

Introduced to the audience by Jean Albright who served for 20 years in the United States Air Force and is a member of the American Veterans for Equal Rights ( AVER ), Belkin described the transgender ban as one of the most "odious sights in American democracy and American citizenship."

"Here is a case where federal regulation requires the state to go after a class of people just for who they are," he said. "That—to me—is a very dangerous precedent. That cheapens the meaning if citizenship when we maintain policies that force the government to go after people who haven't done anything wrong."

Of further concern to Belkin is the lives transgender service members are forced to lead. "They have to lie about who they are," he said. "They can't access medically necessary health care and they can't even get into the military if recruiters find out that they're trans*."

Belkin also pointed out a critical difference between the trans* ban and DADT. "The transgender prohibition is a regulation not a statute," he said. "That is critically important because that means President Obama or Secretary of Defense Hagel could get rid of it with the stroke of a pen."

Those prohibitions on transgender enlistment and retention in the military revolve chiefly around perceived medical and psychological issues.

Regarding the ban on enlistment, "the physical piece says that you can't have abnormal genitals which include genitals altered by affirming surgery," Belkin said. He added that there is also a psychological component to the restriction that is focused upon "trans*identity".

"These bans are articulated both at the level of Defense Department-wide regulations and also in service-specific regulations," Belkin said.

In April 2014, a Defense Department spokesman told Windy City Times "Policies on military personnel and health care regarding transgender members are intended to meet the needs of the services, which include 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."

"The people who wrote the medical regulations did so behind closed doors," Belkin said. "These regulations have language that's—in some cases—thirty years old. So in one sense there is no official rationale for the transgender ban."

He noted that, in several legal cases, the US military defended its ban on the grounds that "cross-sex hormone therapy is just too complicated to administer. A trans*service member could lose their medications."

Belkin went on to say that the military claims gender affirming surgery "is too complicated and we basically can't be bothered to develop the expertise. In terms of mental health, being transgender is a mental illness and we can't allow a mentally ill population to serve in uniform."

Version five of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM ) no longer lists transgender people as suffering from a mental disorder.

Among Belkin's audience were Jim Darby and Patrick Bova who were quintessential figures not only in the fight for marriage equality but in the repeal of DADT. They told Windy City Times that they are similarly committed to seeing the trans*ban removed.

"Everybody helped us when we had our fight," Darby said. "Now it's our turn to help them."

For more information on the work of the Palm Center, please go to

For more information on American Veterans for Equal Rights ( AVER ), please go to .

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