clock menu more-arrow no yes

I got kicked out of the military for my identity. Why does Trump want to repeat history?

I’m queer and served before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Here’s what Trump wants to bring back.

Soldiers at Fort Stewart in Georgia in 2012.
Richard Ellis/Getty Images

Mentally incompatible with military service.

That was the reason given for why I was discharged from the military during my first weeks of training.

The reason, in coded language, was that I was queer.

I joined the military in 1993. Back then, the American military still enforced arcane laws about LGBTQ service members, discharging any that were discovered because they were considered “incompatible” with service.

Twenty-four years later and President Donald Trump is threatening to reinstate similar rules for trans military personnel, banning them from serving for bigoted and illogical reasons.

It’s hard to believe we are still fighting this in 2017. In 2011, the Obama administration put an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” — a half-measure passed in 1994 by the Clinton administration. Last year, the military declared that transgender service people would be permitted to serve openly.

But in three tweets sent out last Thursday, President Trump sent a clear message that his administration wants to go back to the bad old days.

Trump’s announcement came as a surprise to even to his own staffers. Joint Chief Gen. Joseph Dunford has stated that there will be no modification of service for transgender service people — but only until they receive orders from the White House. However, the president is ultimately the commander in chief. It's not simply a title: He outranks and commands our Joint Chiefs and our generals.

The move has nothing to do with a more functional military. For Trump, this is likely an opportunity to funnel $5 million into his El Dorado — his incomprehensible plan to build a wall between the US and Mexico — and to play to his more staunchly conservative base. After all, transgender service people are a visible and easy target for Trump. History tells us that the most likely path they’ll take is to criminalize being transgender in the military.

Thousands could be discharged. Thousands more could be forced to live a lie and make secret the most basic fact about their person: their gender.

I’ve lived this. As a soldier, I remember the quiet labor of covering up my life outside the military and the fear of getting caught. And once I was, the life I had after discharge was dark and disheartening, full of unexpected obstacles.

Studies have shown as few as 2,000 to as many as 15,000 transgender service people on active duty. Whatever the exact number, these service people aren’t just losing their jobs. It's not just being singled out as being unfit simply for existing. It's a cruel firing that will dog them for the rest of their professional lives.

I was interrogated about my sexuality by the military chaplain. Then I was discharged.

When I joined the United States Army as a young queer woman in the ’90s, I was already technically banned from service. It was a violation of the Homosexual Conduct article to serve if you were LGBTQ+, a military law that deemed queer people incompatible with military service.

Early on, homosexuality was simply socially unacceptable to most American communities. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by psychologists and psychiatrists, included homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973. The World Health Organization maintained the designation until 1992.

Intelligence operations rooted out queer service people. They pursued them, raided their private clubs, dragged them out of their closets. Then they court-martialed them, threw many in military jail, and stripped them of their rank, before finally discharging them dishonorably.

Of course, I knew this when I joined. But I also knew I was unlikely to attend college without the GI Bill. I would have been the first person in my family to attend. I never did.

I also fervently believed in the Constitution. The ideals laid down at the founding of this nation felt like blood in my veins. I wanted to protect every American’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I was a true believer.

I was willing to disavow my attraction to women for the duration of my service. It seemed like a fair compromise. If I didn’t act on my orientation or reveal my gender identity, then I was simply existing. I wasn’t lying — I was sacrificing for my nation.

Though I knew intelligence officers would conduct an investigation into my life to grant me a security clearance, I naively didn’t think having a high school girlfriend would turn up or matter. Surely they were more interested in uncovering a criminal record, or an illegal association with a foreign operative. As far as my gender and orientation went, I assumed that what I would do while serving would define me.

I was wrong. I joined the US Army in January of 1993. Congress was hashing out the details of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but it wasn’t the law yet. The discussion in the news and in popular media made queer people in the military more visible than we ever had been.

It made fellow troops and commanding officers think harder about the people around them. Debating “don’t ask, don’t tell” all but compelled people in the military to ask and tell and pursue before the law passed and it was too late.

Ten weeks into training, I got a minor injury in my eye that left me sitting in the hospital for a few days. While I was there, a chaplain came to counsel me. But he wasn't interested about how anxious I was to get back to duty. He did nothing to help soothe my fears that I might have to start basic over if I spent too much time in the hospital.

Instead, he asked roundabout questions. He came at oblique angles: Was I uncomfortable surrounded by so many women? Did I have issues showering with them? Was I having trouble making friends in the platoon? Was I, perhaps, overwhelmed by the boundless femininity that surrounded me? I told him the truth: no. My only problem was an injury that was keeping me from returning to training.

I was never allowed to rejoin my platoon. Instead, they sent me to the processing center, to be mustered out of the service. That’s when I found out they had labeled me Section 8: Mentally Unfit for Military Service. Though no one ever explicitly told me that my discharge was related to my orientation, the discharge paperwork did. They stripped me of my uniform and my service, and put me on a plane back home.

Though I served mere months before DADT became law, I believe the heightened scrutiny its debate brought about is ultimately what cost me my enlistment. The policy also failed to accomplish its intended goal.

Discharges of queer military personnel actually went up after DADT. In 1998, the Defense Department released a study that indicates the military discharged 67 percent more queer service people after the law was passed than they did before.

DADT had expanded the definition of "telling," and it also changed the rule of law about "asking." Recruiters, intelligence officers, chaplains, psychologists: They figured out how to get their point across in other ways. Is she a spinster? Does he have a longtime roommate? Is she particularly interested in sports? Does he have a taste for musicals?

It’s how they rooted me out.

Getting discharged from the military has a long trail effect on your life

Military service follows you for the rest of your life. It affects your job prospects, your benefits, even your sense of self. While many join the military as a career, or as a stepping stone toward one, there is a sense of pride to protecting one's nation. A discharge because of who you are, as opposed to what you may have done, erodes that pride.

A general discharge as compared to an honorable one seems somehow impure to people. So much so that a 2013 law made it possible for veterans dismissed under DADT to appeal their discharge status. It was an important victory. Most job applications ask if you served. Then they ask you to explain if you were discharged under anything but honorable conditions.

So in my case, in the case of soldiers dismissed under DADT, and likely in the case of transgender service people being separated from service, there's a choice: You can out yourself, or you can admit you were discharged for being mentally incompatible with military service.

My discharge came four years before Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television. I returned to my hometown in Indiana, and I couldn’t afford to out myself to potential employers. I didn’t get called back if I admitted my Section 8. Entry-level administrative jobs slipped out of my reach.

Instead of my original plan of becoming a military linguist, I worked in gas stations on third shift. I did midnight data entry in a job that locked us in until our shift ended. I did a stint as a phone psychic. These are not growth opportunities. Ringing up cigarettes behind bulletproof glass isn’t the beginning of a long and fruitful career.

There is one more alternative. You can always go forward with a lie: Don't mention your service at all. Pretend it never happened. Leave it off the application. March on with missing months or years on your job applications, because nobody wants to hire someone sectioned out as mentally unfit.

This means, unfortunately, you can't get a job in the field you learned while you were in the military, because all those certificates, all that training — you can't claim it. Or you can try, and hope that HR overlooks your mental unfitness. You can hope.

Trump isn’t just firing trans service members. He’s branding them.

Trump's tweets insist that his ban is based on the "tremendous medical costs and disruption" that transgender service people present to the military. A Defense Department-commissioned report from the RAND Corporation estimated these costs average $2 million to $8 million a year.

The US Armed Forces paid $41 million for prescriptions of Viagra alone to active-duty service people. If you include seven other erectile dysfunction prescriptions provided by military health care, that number soars to $84 million.

If it’s not too much for military health care to subsidize the well-being and sexual health of cisgender men in the military, why is it too much to pay for the well-being and sexual health of transgender people in service?

Trump may have a point on disruption, although he's the one who caused it. Much like my experience in the months leading up to the passage of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the scrutiny on transgender service people will be higher than ever. Much of that scrutiny will fall on those who are already out. It will also come to bear on those who are not. It will encourage a return to practices that rooted out closeted service people, because once transgender service becomes illegal, their silence becomes criminal.

The US military is bound by its laws. It spells out who may or may not serve, what activities may or may not earn you a court-martial (sodomy, by the way, is still against the UCMJ), and how the military can treat you on the way out.

So when Donald Trump pressed his hypothetical button to bring him a Coke, and picked up his iPhone to abruptly sever the careers of every transgender person serving in the military, he didn't simply fire them. He branded them.

If history is any indication, those soldiers will lose their service record, their training, their pensions. They'll lose the few small privileges afforded to people who honorably serve their country in pursuit of a more perfect union. They, and their families, will abruptly lose their health care.

But this won't be the end of transgender service people. Just as there have always secretly been women, gay people, lesbians, bisexuals, and beyond in the service, there will always be transgender people in the service. They'll just be forced to lie.

Their tongues will grow nimble as they wrap a black band around their hearts. They won't tell, but people will ask.

All because of three heedless little tweets.

Saundra Mitchell is an author and editor living in the Midwest with her wife and daughter. Her next anthology, All Out, is slated for publication in February 2018 from HarlequinTeen. It features 17 stories from queer YA authors, about queer teens and their adventures throughout history. Visit her at www.saundramitchell.com or @SaundraMitchell on Twitter.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.