Transgender Soldiers Next Barrier

Last month, a retired Navy SEAL came out as transgender. Those still in uniform, however, must serve in silence.

Last month, a retired Navy SEAL came out as transgender. Those still in uniform, however, must serve in silence.

USA Today (“Transgender Troops Serve In Silence“):

It’s unknown how many transgender troops are serving in the U.S. military, largely because they would get kicked out for coming out. About 700,000 Americans in a population of more than 300 million are transsexuals, according to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Another milestone in June: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel seemed to sanction their service when he addressed a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride (LGBT) event at the Pentagon. But there was a catch: civilians can switch sexes and keep their defense jobs. Troops can’t. Unlike allies Great Britain, Israel and Canada, the U.S. military disqualifies transgender troops for health reasons.

“I was at the Pentagon when Secretary Hagel was saying we’re here to celebrate LGBT service,” says a transgender Army sergeant who joined the Army as a woman. The sergeant spoke on condition of anonymity to stay in the service.

“I’m kind of looking around for the rest of Ts,” the soldier says, referring to transgender troops. Other troops could celebrate marriage equality, the sergeant says, but not the transsexuals.

Transgender pride extends to Defense Department civilian employees such as Amanda Simpson, a senior Army official. Simpson, named to her post by President Obama, is the highest-ranking openly transgender official. She declined to comment for this story.

That pride stops with troops transitioning to the opposite sex.

For now, the Pentagon has no plans to cross that line, says Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman. They’re medically disqualified, according to Pentagon regulations. Army regulations, for instance, prohibit transvestism.

Tom Vanden Brook found two serving troops willing to share their story:

As a Southerner, a black woman and a member of the Baptist church, the sergeant kept her sexuality secret and her sense that she was a man buried even deeper. The sergeant’s age is “in the 20s,” declining to be more specific.

“I joined because I wanted to serve,” the sergeant says. “I didn’t think of gender or the sexual-identity piece. My father was a soldier. I wanted to come home in a uniform like him.”

After a deployment to Iraq in 2011, the sergeant decided it was time to identify as a man.

“I was ready to match my outward appearance with my inner being,” the sergeant says. “I wanted to start to transition. I knew that it was going to be a battle with my family and even my friends. But the worst came when I had to bypass my integrity — lie to my soldiers and not bring my whole self to work.”

The transition began with working out, eating differently, bulking up. Then, under medical supervision, the sergeant began taking synthetic testosterone, the male hormone. The sergeant plans to have a mastectomy to remove breast tissue but is uncertain about surgery to change genitals.

As a reservist, the sergeant has a civilian job and goes to work dressed as a man. For Army drills on weekends, the woman must emerge.

“It’s kind of a double life,” the sergeant says. “In my civilian life everyone just knows he, just him. I go in with my facial hair, and I’m just a guy. When I put the uniform on, I shave. The feminine voice comes out if I can. Whatever I can muster that’s feminine. That’s when the sergeant who’s supposed to be female comes out.”


The second soldier, a lieutenant colonel, is a combat veteran, 45, with a background in special operations. The soldier reports for duty by day in a man’s uniform.

At night and on weekends: skirt, heels, makeup.

“I might be a 45-year-old guy mentally, if I choose to think like that,” the lieutenant colonel says. “But as a girl I’m like 16. Things I never learned as a little girl growing up that Mamma would have taught me in terms of all the feminine virtues.”

The choice is shattering the lieutenant colonel’s life. There’s a divorce and living apart the soldier’s children. Retirement from the Army looms in a few months. Job performance has suffered. Troops in transition might need to leave or take a break from service, the lieutenant colonel says. Once they’ve fully transitioned, they should be able to do the job.

“Three monstrous stresses: No. 1, transitioning from male to female,” the lieutenant colonel says. “No. 2, transitioning out of the military and wondering what I want to be when I grow up. I just never realized that that was housewife. The third, the divorce.”

How does the lieutenant colonel cope?

“I drink a lot.”

For years, the lieutenant colonel has repressed femininity.

“I always felt uncomfortable in my body and I didn’t know why,” the lieutenant colonel says. “I was deathly afraid of being gay. That was the biggest sin you could have in my family. One thing that my dad hated more than anything. I was never allowed to have a G.I. Joe because my dad wouldn’t allow dolls in the house. I had no sisters. It was an all-male, all-the-time environment.”

Throughout the soldier’s career, the lieutenant colonel chose the most physically demanding jobs and succeeded at them. The soldier got married, had kids, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lieutenant colonel considers himself a conservative and “constitutionalist” who viewed “don’t ask, don’t tell” as illegal and was pleased it was repealed.

Since February, the lieutenant colonel has been leaving a one-bedroom apartment dressed as a woman and has started to use a woman’s name.

The lieutenant colonel would like to lose his baritone, but surgery to lose his penis requires more thought.

The culture is much further away from coming to grips with transgender issues than homosexuality and I don’t think the military is ready to deal with this issue quite yet. But it has to be hell on these people, however many of them there are, trying to both come to grips with their identity and yet hide it from those to whom they’re closest.

FILED UNDER: Environment, Gender Issues, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. aFloridian says:

    The Armed Forces won’t let overweight people, disabled people, and people on classes of drugs like antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs join the military, Are these “barriers” we need to overcome?

    I understand that in the case of overweight or disabled recruits that if you are physically unable to do a given job, that’s one thing, but if we are going to ban people on certain mental health medications from joining, why should transgender recruits be allowed? Obviously the military is worried about the mental stability of someone with depression, for example, and his or her ability to withstand the rigors of Army service, but whether you think self-identifying as a transgender person is a mental illness or not, certainly the mental health issues around serving as a transgender should raise as many flags as those who have depression?

  2. Jay Gischer says:

    Thanks for the support, James.

  3. Can you perform the job?

    If yes, welcome aboard. I really wish it was like this.

  4. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @aFloridian: That is a similar argument to the one that was used to deny security clearances to gay civilians until the mid-90s.

  5. Franklin says:


    whether you think self-identifying as a transgender person is a mental illness or not, certainly the mental health issues around serving as a transgender should raise as many flags as those who have depression?

    Does anybody know what aFloridian is trying to say?

  6. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Franklin: Let me translate.

    “There are service restrictions on people with mental illness [note: I have no idea if this true, or under what circumstances – Gromitt], so isn’t it reasonable to restrict transgender recruits as they are likely to experience all sorts of horrific mental scarring that will render them unable to serve, even if being transgender isn’t considered a mental illness?”

    Not unlike “Since there are all sorts of social stigmas associated with homosexual behavior, shouldn’t we exclude known homosexuals from security clearance since they are prone to being unstable alchoholic drug abusers subject to blackmail threats because their stigmatized behavior is so heavily stigmatized?”


    “Women need to wear burkas so men aren’t tempted to rape them.”

  7. Anon-1 says:

    I have a son, whom I’ll call G., who went into the Marine Corps right after HS graduation. After about 1-1/2 years in the Corps, he deployed with his unit to Iraq where he saw actual combat, pulled triggers and saw friends and jihadis alike killed. This was many years ago when the Iraq question was far from settled. He did one enlistment and separated and earned his BS degree.

    Maybe three years after he returned from Iraq he made a suicidal remark in an online game which another player (still on active duty, but they had never met) called long distance to report to our local sheriff’s dept. At 1 a.m. deputy appeared and took our son to hospital, where he was diagnosed with deep depression and PTSD. (As you will be unsurprised to hear, his post-service VA case was pending, and would continue to for at least two more years.)

    Within a few months (maybe only several weeks) after that evening he decided that he was really a female. Without discussion with his mother or me, he went to court and had his named changed to a feminine name, let his hair grow and started seeing a specialist (whether an MD or not I never learned) who offered counseling and prescriptions. Well, surprise, these specialists never tell someone that transgenderism may not be the problem they need to address, that their desire to change genders just might be a symptom of a deeper dysfunction and maybe that needs to be assessed first. I assure you, all they see is a paying customer, period.

    In my very numerous conversations with mental-health counselors (G. spent no little time in psychiatric wards in more than one hospital) never at any time did any counselor ever treat his transgenderism as anything but absolutely normal and unquestionable, of no more mental-health implication than saying he’d decided to change his hair color . Several were genuinely puzzled (and told me so) that I would even ask them to consider whether this was a mental-health symptom of underlying causes, only some of which had by then actually been diagnosed.

    At this time G. is nearing 30, living independently in a different state, presently unemployed but working with the VA on starting vocational rehab, his case finally having been resolved. He made two actual, not symbolic, suicide attempts in the last 2-3 years but thankfully, that dark place does now seem to be behind. G. dresses as a female but otherwise has had no changes made. He has been and I assume still is taking drugs that raise his voice pitch and stifle facial hair growth, but I frankly am not sure.

    We actually have a good relationship; he visited us for three weeks last spring and it was a very good visit. In some ways, though, his TG status is an elephant in the living room in that we all know it’s there but we also know that there are aspects of it that we (mainly my wife and I) just can’t talk easily about yet, and maybe never will.

    It is extremely difficult (well, no, make that impossible, actually) for me to accept G. as a female. I still cannot use “she” in referring to him. Part of this is probably because he was grown and gone when this all came up. While he lived in our home he was always our son. But G. and I have amicably agreed at this point to let that lie and relate at least as father-child rather than specifically father-son or father-daughter.

    I have no, “therefore” to end this comment, no policy recommendation for the armed forces. I am just saying that this whole issue is damned painful for everyone involved and much more complex than people probably imagine. And I still do not know how things will turn out with G.

  8. Franklin says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Ahhh, okay, got it.

  9. superdestroyer says:

    There were many cheap labor, big government compassionate conservatives who argued that if homosexual marriage was legalized, it would put the issue behind the Republicans and that conservatives would be able to appeal to homosexuals. However, many other conservatives and and others on the right pointed out that homosexuals are generally extremely liberal and will continue to find issues to bash conservatives and that homosexuals will not be happy until the U.S. is a one party state with a very powerful, very centralized government that will try to control people. And now those conservatives have been show to be correct.

    Homosexuals are just extremely liberal and will always have an issue to be upset about and to use to bash conservatives. Any conservatives who tries to moderate their positions and gives homosexuals what they want is a fool and will deserve the big government one party state that will exist in the future.

  10. Franklin says:

    @Anon-1: Thank you for the story. I hope your child’s issues are resolved at some point. Unfortunately I can’t provide any help here, other than to commend you for continuing to love your child, and encouraging you to accept whoever he or she turns out to be.

  11. Tyrell says:

    Is there a polygamist barrier?