For 17 years, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forcibly closeted tens of thousands of military servicemen and women. Originally designed as a compromise between lawmakers and military personnel who wanted the ban on LGBTQ servicemembers lifted and those who didn’t, the reality of DADT encouraged an environment in which discrimination and prejudice festered, and those most hurt by it had no recourse because they faced dishonorable discharge. Over the lifespan of DADT, more than 14,000 servicemembers were given discharges due to their sexual orientation. The 2011 repeal of DADT, however, lifted that albatross from the necks of our LGBTQ servicemembers, allowing them to live authentically both in and out of uniform. Now we have a military that accepts any qualified person willing to serve — and with the daily reminder of the dangers at our country’s doorstep, better late than never.
So what has the military been like since the repeal of DADT for servicemen and women? There are many, many stories online of LGBTQ military personnel and the hoops they jumped through to remain in the military despite their orientation or gender identity: allowing their colleagues and superiors to believe their significant others were roommates; couples who weren’t able to speak with each other across deployments as frequently or as fearlessly as their heterosexual counterparts for fear of being correctly identified by nearby unit members; fears of a deployed soldier about benefits for their significant others and children should their service conclude in the ultimate sacrifice; being forced to lead a double life just to have both career and love.
Now, however, LGBTQ members can serve openly and honestly, not hiding their partner’s identity behind the clever merry-go-round of the pronoun game, and even going so far as to win the Navy’s lottery for ceremonial “first-kiss” honors, a tradition in which one servicemember aboard a ship returning to port is chosen to plant one on their partner before the remainder of the sailors disembark. It seems as the culture shifts in the United States, one of the last bastions of tradition and toughness is learning acceptance, where the harassers and bullies within are the outliers, not the norm.
Such acceptance has been hard-won, with servicemembers recounting pre-DADT stories of jokes at the expense of LGBTQ people, including one involving a single bullet and a choice between shooting the enemy and shooting a gay wingman. Hint: The punchline didn’t favor so well for the wingman. The importance of trust in a servicemember’s colleagues cannot be overstated — they’re expected to put their lives in the hands of their unit. To have that trust, you have to know your unit on a deeper level, something that wasn’t possible under DADT.
Now, those who tell or laugh at those jokes and spit out the slurs are the ones disciplined. Even after the repeal of DADT, the Equal Opportunity Office didn’t include sexual orientation as one of the protected classes. In fact, it wasn’t until Oct. 30, 2015, that there was an official procedure or guidance to instruct the chain of command on how to handle a harassment complaint.
So how does our military compare to other countries? Look no further than to our northern neighbors to see a drastic comparison: Canada has allowed open service by LGBTQ members, including trans soldiers, since 1992. With the 2003 passage of marriage equality, Canadian Forces immediately recognized all same-sex marriages and civil unions, affording them the same benefits they provide their heterosexual counterparts.
Meanwhile, in the United States, open transgender servicemembers were banned until June 2016. While transgender soldiers are not allowed Real Life Experience — the Army’s term to describe social transition — until their gender marker is changed in the official Army personnel record, transgender soldiers are protected from harassment and discrimination under the Equal Opportunity Office’s policies.
Transitioning officially begins when the soldier initiates the process by telling their superior and their unit they are transgender and are seeking to transition. Their unit commander is responsible for supporting the soldier, including, but not limited to, approving a medical-treatment plan and a gender-marker change when the time is right. When the military medical providers sign off that the transition is medically necessary — generally beginning with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria — they set up a personalized medical-treatment plan, which can, but does not necessarily, include sex-reassignment surgery. Once a soldier starts to transition, they are also granted protection should they choose to live socially as their preferred identity while off-duty and off-base. The handbook specifically states that it is against regulations for anyone to out a transgender soldier should they see them off-base dressed as their true identity rather than their gender assigned at birth. Not only that, but soldiers are encouraged to intervene against harassment or bullying of the transitioning soldier.
As the transition progresses, the guidelines specify how to handle the changes in the soldier’s body with regards to physical training. They are to be held to the standards consistent with their gender marker listed in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS), and if the transition process includes cross-sex hormones that change a member’s capabilities, commanders are to consult with medical personnel as they would for any medical condition that alters a soldier’s performance. Finally, once the medical team confirms the soldier’s individual transition is complete, the soldier’s gender marker is changed in DEERS and they are then expected to change to the barracks, bathroom and showers corresponding with that marker’s gender identity, with specific guidelines included for modesty and respect common to all soldiers in such living situations.
Considering this is the start of the policy, there are problems with it. First and foremost, not every transgender person experiences body dysmorphia and therefore some soldiers cannot start their transition. Also, restricting a transgender soldier’s social transition on base keeps those who live in military housing, but not in a barracks, from being their authentic selves even in their own homes. It would be wrong for me to not mention the unequal treatment of the transgender families: the health-care and safety benefits provided for transgender individuals do not extend to military families, but only to the personnel themselves.
There’s some concern that the current White House administration could roll back the progress made for current LGBTQ military personnel. Defense Secretary James Mattis — who replaced the first openly gay Defense Secretary Eric Fanning — refused to say in his confirmation hearings whether or not he thought LGBTQ people should be able to serve in the military. Trump recently nominated one of the most anti-LGBTQ politicians in the country as Army Secretary — Mark Green, a senator from Tennessee who later withdrew his nomination.
LGBTQ servicemen and women have had six years serving openly to prove their orientation does not affect their qualifications to serve. What’s more, being open about who they are extends more trust between colleagues than ever before, a necessary factor in a strong and unified military. With North Korea launching eight missiles already in 2017, the ongoing fight against ISIS and terrorist attacks becoming all too common, we should be welcoming everyone and anyone who wants to serve. Progress may be slow in the mightiest military on the planet, but it’s gaining ground, and every day we should be thankful for our active-duty LGBTQ military personnel. Their bravery cannot be measured.