When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, LGBTQ soldiers couldn’t serve openly in the US military — as a result of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) for gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals and a ban, through military medical regulations, for transgender people.
Now both bans are gone: Congress repealed DADT in 2010, and the US military officially implemented the repeal in 2011. Last June, the Pentagon announced it would phase out its ban on trans troops over the next year. It’s a remarkable shift in just a few years — one of the biggest LGBTQ victories in a time period full of LGBTQ victories. (The latter has drawn renewed attention since Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, a trans woman and former US Army intelligence analyst who leaked classified military and diplomatic documents.)
These repeals were a long time coming, with LGBTQ advocates pushing hard for the changes and the Obama administration eventually coming around as a strong ally, even as some of the military’s top brass remained skeptical.
To this point, much of the conversation about these issues has focused on equality. To be sure, equality is by itself a good reason to allow LGBTQ soldiers to serve openly.
But there’s also another benefit: It makes the military better at its job. If LGBTQ people are going to serve in the military (and history shows they will), it makes far more sense to fully integrate them into the institution than not. Not only does that increase the potential pool of recruits, but it can also improve morale and trust among soldiers.
As the Department of Defense put it in June, it “must have access to 100 percent of America’s population for its all-volunteer force to be able to recruit from among the most highly qualified, and to retain them.”
To understand why, it’s important to know just how much the bans on LGBTQ soldiers serving openly hurt them — and potentially their peers. These are the stories of some of those soldiers, who served under the bans and, in the case of gay soldiers, after they were repealed.
The bans on LGBTQ soldiers put service members in miserable situations
The most obvious way the LGBTQ soldier bans hurt the military is by limiting the pool of people the military could recruit.
But the bans had another detrimental effect: They hindered LGBTQ troops who served in hiding and, by extension, the forces they were deployed with.
When I asked LGBTQ soldiers and veterans about how it felt to serve while hiding their true identities, they consistently reported feeling like traitors — and all the stress that comes with that.
“Think about being an American spy in Russia and how difficult that would be,” Shane Ortega, a soon-to-be-retired transgender soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan while in the Marines and Army, told me. “You have to be perfect in every sense of the word. You have to always question people around you. You can never relax. You have to always think ahead. And you have to always be observant and aware of yourself and your surroundings.”
This is especially tough in the military, which relies on trust and working together as a family so soldiers are comfortable literally protecting one another’s lives. “You never get to fulfill the authenticity of that bond,” Ortega said. “In high-kinetic situations where you’re exchanging rounds, you want to know the person standing next to you, because that’s all that counts at that moment.”
This type of emotional stress is fairly similar to what gay, lesbian, and bisexual soldiers faced during DADT. Chris Rowzee, a lesbian who served in the Air Force before, during, and after DADT, said she and her partner were afraid to go out in public for fear they would be recognized — even taking different cars to go to the commissary and avoiding public places such as movie theaters.
“It was a significant, everyday stress. Everyday activities that normal people do and take for granted, we had to worry about whether we would be seen and accused of being gay, and lose our livelihood,” Rowzee said. “When you’re talking about frontline troops who are literally in the trenches together … it does add a whole new layer to it when you don’t feel like you can be completely open and honest with the folks you’re fighting next to.”
But for trans soldiers, the ban also posed a risk to their health. Kristin Beck, a former Navy SEAL who came out and transitioned after retirement, said she delayed her transition for years as a result of wanting to stay in the military. “There was only one person who I told about it,” she said. “He just said, ‘Don’t ever tell anyone this again.’ And I just said, ‘Okay. Good advice.’”
This is a big health risk for trans people: If trans people can’t transition as they wish, it can worsen their gender dysphoria — a state of emotional distress caused by how someone’s body or the gender they were designated at birth conflicts with their gender identity. Severe gender dysphoria can lead to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Untreated dysphoria is an oft-cited reason trans men are 46 percent likely and trans women are 42 percent likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime, compared with 4.6 percent of the general population.
In a combat situation, this is an extra layer of emotional stress that can be dangerous — and unnecessary, since gender dysphoria can be treated, according to the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association, by letting people transition without the threat of discrimination against them.
As the Palm Center, an LGBTQ-focused think tank, concluded in an August 2014 report, “Experiences of foreign military organizations that have adopted inclusive policy indicate that when the US military allows transgender personnel to serve, commanders will be better equipped to take care of the service members under their charge, and the 15,500 transgender individuals estimated to be serving currently will have greater access to health care and be better equipped to do their jobs.”
Bans on LGBTQ soldiers led to all sorts of unintended consequences
There were also more tangible horrors to the bans on LGBTQ soldiers — through a large variety of appalling unintended consequences.
Jennifer Dane, an Air Force veteran who’s now a diversity and inclusion policy analyst at the American Military Partner Association (an LGBTQ group), told me of a horrific case in which she was sexually assaulted by a fellow airman. In hearings, Dane was asked about her sexual orientation — something that may have helped her case, given that the fact she’s lesbian could be used to prove that she didn’t consent to her male assaulter. But because she couldn’t out herself without the risk of dismissal from the military, Dane couldn’t use that potentially crucial piece of evidence.
“The airman did not face any charges,” Dane said. “And I really believe that potentially it could have been different if I had been able to tell them that I was gay.”
Rowzee shared a different but similarly horrifying experience. When she was seriously injured while on duty, she was hospitalized in Germany. But unlike with opposite-sex couples, the military wasn’t able to notify her partner (who’s now her wife) because the armed forces didn’t know she had a partner — at the time, the military couldn’t know.
Her partner did find out anyway, because she was also in the military and had access to the daily casualty list, which includes injuries. But even then, Rowzee’s partner had to continue working and acting like everything was okay, since she couldn’t show any sign that she was gay — for her own sake and Rowzee’s.
It’s also easy to imagine a tragic scenario in which Rowzee died, her partner wasn’t in the military, and Rowzee’s relatives didn’t know of her partner or want to tell her partner about her death — and her now-wife would have been left out in the cold without any knowledge of what had happened to her loved one. “They would have notified my mom,” Rowzee said. “If I didn’t have a supportive mom, she could just have refused to notify my wife.”
As Dane and Rowzee told me, their stories show the unintended consequences that these bans are rife with: Once people have to hide a huge part of their identity, it can complicate their lives in big, previously unforeseen ways. In an institution built around trust and working together to protect each other, the unintended consequences can be quite dangerous — not just to LGBTQ soldiers but also to their peers, who need to be able to trust all their fellow troops.
There are analogs similar to these stories that apply to trans people. What if a trans soldier had some injury or complication related to trans-related health care? What if while treating a soldier for an injury, military doctors found out someone is secretly trans? What if a trans soldier is facing severe anxiety or depression due to dysphoria but can’t report that to a doctor out of fear of being outed? In all of these situations, an otherwise capable soldier may have gotten dismissed or had health issues left untreated — both bad outcomes for a military that wants a large, capable force.
With the end of the bans on LGBTQ soldiers, these issues will be much less likely. And with that, the military stands to expand its pool of qualified recruits. But there are some big questions about how the ban’s repeal on trans soldiers will be implemented.
There will be extra challenges to ending the trans service ban that didn’t exist for “don’t ask, don’t tell”
Overall, DADT’s repeal was generally smooth, with few complaints and bad stories coming in the aftermath. Still, the change didn’t come without any hitches. Rowzee, for one, said she saw a senior commander in her unit pushed into retirement after he made homophobic remarks following the repeal.
Similarly, the end of the trans service ban shouldn’t bring many big problems. According to a study by the RAND Corporation released Thursday, the repeal will have a “minimal” impact on the military’s readiness and budget — in large part because trans people make up such a small part of the military and US population at less than 1 percent of either. Looking at four of the countries with the most advanced military policies for trans soldiers (Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom), RAND found no evidence of an effect on military effectiveness, readiness, or cohesion.
Still, LGBTQ advocates say there are a few reasons the trans service ban’s repeal could be a bit bumpier than the end of DADT. For one, Americans are simply much less aware of what it means to be trans and the concepts behind transness, such as gender identity and expression. Educating soldiers on these issues will likely take a much more robust education and awareness campaign than what was present with the end of DADT.
“You’re putting a huge strain on so many people all at once,” Beck, the ex–Navy SEAL, said. “You’re going to need some liaisons, HR people, maybe people like myself to just be there and be ready to answer questions — not just to transgender people but to other people at the base also.”
Another major issue is health care. While not all trans people transition, and just how far people go in their transitions varies from person to person, those who go through the full medical transition — hormone therapy, genital reconstruction surgery, and so on — can face a long medical process that can involve weeks or months of downtime. This isn’t too different from other medical procedures someone may need throughout their lives, but because it’s a new issue for the military, the military is poised to treat the issue differently than other medical conditions.
So far, the military appears to be taking a fairly conservative approach. An anonymous US official told the Associated Press that the military will require an 18-month waiting period before people on hormone therapy or other gender-affirmative treatments can join the military, with the latter also requiring verification from a medical provider. The AP did report, however, that it will be possible to waive the waiting period under some circumstances.
As Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told Slate, “We do have remaining concerns about an expected 18-month delay for individuals to join the military after a gender transition. This delay is substantially longer than individuals for comparable medical issues. We hope that this is a lingering piece of transgender exceptionalism that we expect will change as the military sees that it is simply an unnecessary barrier to getting the best talent.”
Still, Keisling praised the change as an overall step forward. The policies are subject to change, too, as the military potentially grows more comfortable and familiar with trans service members.
To this end, LGBTQ advocates seem fairly optimistic that things will get better over time. Beck, drawing on her experience with a neighbor, said it’s possible to change hearts and minds — to make soldiers more accepting and policies more progressive moving forward.
“I have a neighbor who kicked out his son, who was gay,” Beck said. “In the beginning he would always look the other way, and I would wave, just trying to be friendly. Then there was a huge snowstorm — 4-foot snow here in Maryland; it was deep. And I was out there on the tractor, plowing for hours and hours and hours. And all he saw was this person out on the tractor just plowing for four hours, trying to get this snow out of the [shared] driveway.”
She added, “A couple months later, snow is all gone, it’s spring. He starts waving at me. And when I wave to him, he waves back. And about a month later, he starts talking to me and asking me questions. And it’s all because he saw a person — a human being.”