Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Transgender in the Modern Military: A Lesson in Class and Culture


"The financial cost of transition-related care, in short, is too low to matter."

Aaron Belkin
Caring for Our Transgender Troops
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Framing the Lesson
  • Patriotism: x2 Higher Enrollment than % than Cisgender Population
  • Veterans: Significant Number of Post-Military Transitions
  • Legacy: Long History of Trans Service Persons

Debates around transgender in the military may arise and may arouse a wide range of tangential discussions in a host of classrooms; on medicine, the military, law, government, and politics; on classism, sexism, homophobia, and disability. As an activist and consultant, I see how these conversations have direct effects on the present and future of thousands of transgender persons in the armed forces and countless people affected by the politics. As a scholar of cultural studies, I see how this issue is inextricably tied to wider norms and problems related to gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, geography, and embodiment. As a historian, especially as a medievalist, I see how this issue is both very of the present moment, and also very much a part of ancient history. As a public writer, a scholar, and a teacher I want to frame lessons in response to explicit and implicit claims against transgender service people.

Before I do, however, I want to acknowledge that transgender people's relation and participation to the military does not merely exist as a way to spite transphobic complaints. One could and should be able to have a rich, complicated, and historical day (or semester) discussing transgender people in the military without giving transphobes more than a footnote. It might be hard to avoid the draw to address major transphobes, especially those commanders-in-chief, but such trans-positive conversations are possible and important. Reports show that transgender people enroll in the military at twice (x2) the rate of cisgender people. These numbers increase exponentially when they consider all the transgender people who have transitioned after leaving the military. Transgender people currently and historically have a complicated and long relationship to institutions of warfares and service to the nation. Indeed, once one considers the many historical and fictional gender non-conforming and gender variant persons that appear in texts from Disney and Lord of the Rings to Joan of Arc's interrogation, there is material enough to fuel many lessons without directly needing to addressing the myths and misinformation of transphobes.

Yet teaching often occurs at bleeding edges but these are often also growing edges. I tell my students that I conservatively spend 60% of my time reading what people who hate me and my communities than I spend reading about the wonderful things that we actually do and are. In reality that percentage is probably a lot higher. Because lessons are about the information that others need to receive and not about the information I want give, this practice of leaning into the hate is often the most effective at bringing the haters closer to embracing me and my communities. Following that policy, I have thrown together some notes that may be useful for a wide range of audiences on the critiques of cost and class, culture and history in the web of transgender in the military. The goal is to be accessible and adaptable for various readers or teachers. An advanced series of lessons might be given using critical theory, expansive histories, and memoirs that further fill out and complicate these conversations. Indeed, my own scholarship leans into the particular significant nuances of medieval stories, particular those tied to Joan of Arc and Roman de Silence, that are critically important to current transgender studies on issues of military service, nationalism, sexual embodiment, history, and faith. That is where I am going but I do not want to go there alone. Joan of Arc leads by example in showing us that we do not turn the tide of a war on the battle grounds of culture, history, and government in solitude, nor by merely working with those who agree with us, but by working, fighting, and sacrificing alongside those who do not yet understand or approve. The culture and history of transgender in the military time and again teaches many lessons, among them the willingness to serve, defend, and support those who otherwise would not share a church, a nation, or a classroom. Such a willingness may very well better us in our capacities as activists, scholars, and teachers; as it may then affect even more of us in our capacities as citizens and voters.

Example Discussion Questions:


  • How does the higher than average number of transgender persons serving in the armed forces compare or contrast with public conceptions of the political alignments of trans populations? What are a few of the social, economic, and historical factors that may contribute to the U.S. military being one of the largest employers of trans persons nationwide?

  • How does transitioning after a military career potentially affect relationships between veterans and other service persons? What are a few social, legal, and personal factors that may lead to this historic trend of waiting until after retirement to transition?

  • How does the long history of trans persons represented in armed forces (going back to medieval literature and history) widen the conversation about transgender military beyond the immediate concerns of federal bans, American policy, or contemporary politics? What are factors about military service that might be similar and different for trans service persons in the distant past?

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A Lecture on Classism

Responses to Stated Critiques

  • Costs: Extraordinary Expenses vs. Low Costs Relative to Overall and Gender-Specific Healthcare Budget Totals
  • Cohesion: Prejudice vs. Testimonies on Troop Camaraderie
  • Competency: Mental Illness vs. Excellent Records of Service

Costs: The stated critiques around transgender people serving openly in the military open hinge arounds the cost of transition related healthcare. Such critiques tend to claim either concern for ballooning the military budget in general or a personal repulsion at tax money going to help transgender people transition. The former claim is addressed in the critical literature and interviews suggested, where dedicated studies as well as direct professional experience demonstrates that transgender healthcare represents a tiny fraction around (2-4 million) out of the massive healthcare costs of the military (around 50 billion), which is all the more diminutive in relation to the overall military budget (around 600 billion). This is in part related to the relatively small number of transgender service persons and that a great number of these service persons will not elect to undergo surgical procedures which make up the majority of the projected expenses. Furthermore, placing the amount spent on transgender healthcare in comparison to other gender specific expenses (such as the much larger amount spent on erectile disfunction treatment like Viagra) likewise puts these costs in context. In regards to the latter personal concern, the literature likewise addresses how the military covers ordinary and extra-ordinary healthcare costs for all of its service people that is particular to their needs. This includes eye-glasses for those with vision related issues and Viagra for those with erection related issues. For transgender persons, transition related healthcare is deemed necessary and normal by the medical community.

Cohesion: Another area in which the public political concern focuses is on concerns about troop cohesion and culture. The thesis essentially boils down to the projection, "if I, a 'normal' American would have issues working with transgender persons... theoretically ... then the military MUST have issues as well." Based on the reports generated by military leadership, there is no cohesion problem. In this respect, the military seems to know what it can and cannot handle - in respects to troop cohesion - better than the transphobic public; in no small part because of the intentionality given in recent decades to the integration of women, people of color, and LGB service people. This does not mean that every military unit will have a culture that is explicitly pro-LGBTQI politics. What this does mean is that as far as the leadership and independent research has seen, members of the military being LGB or T (transgender) in no way interferes with troop cohesion or effectiveness. In comparison, the military may still be a hard place to be a woman, however being a woman is no longer considered a reason to exclude someone from military service. Addressing this concern, the interviews with current and former transgender military service peoples (as well as their comrades) helps to humanize and contextualize the cohesion already occurring within the armed forces.

Competency: A less popular claim among professional politicians but a more popular claim among the uneducated public is that transgender people are mentally ill and therefore not able-bodied enough to serve. In this respect, not only are the military specific studies helpful but the wide array of medical and legal literature going back for many years that affirm that being transgender is not a mental illness. What educated and specialized experts can explain is that transgender people require gender specific healthcare much in the way other men, women, and intersex people require particular forms of healthcare. The fact that menstruation related healthcare may be needed by some women and not by most men does not make them disordered. The medical community regards transgender persons as part of the natural, normal, and healthy gender diversity of the human species. Some transgender persons may experience gender dysphoria but this can be readily managed by decreasing prejudice against transgender persons and increasing transition related care. Once again, these specific needs for some trans service persons is not considered extra-ordinary nor in any way inhibits their ability to serve. In fact, what medical studies have shown is that transgender troops are healthier and more effective at their jobs when allowed to serve openly as well as receiving the full range of transgender related health care. Once again, interviews with specific service people also demonstrate the many extraordinary accomplishments and success of transgender persons in the military. This replaces the image of transgender persons as disordered with images of trans persons as strong, efficient, and productive members of the armed services.

Example Discussion Questions


  • What is the role and responsibility of the military to provide limited or full healthcare to armed service people? Does gender specific healthcare (men, women, trans people, etc.) complicate these responsibilities or not? How should the military respond to partisan political complaints from the public that does not approve of trans healthcare on pro-religious rather pro-military grounds?

  • How might a person coming out as transgender improve rather than hinder troop cohesion? How does "bringing all parts of yourself" to military service improve rather than hinder a trans person's capacity to serve? What are non-military or non-transgender comparisons we might draw to similar conflicts around integration?

  • How might a transgender service person be trans but not experience dysphoria? How might anti-trans prejudice or transgender bans increase dysphoria? What are the qualities of dysphoria and does it in any way inhibit the performance of duties? How do debates around transgender and mental illness bring latent and overt ableism in the military to the forefront?


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A Discussion of Culture

Responses to Unstated Critiques

  • Sexism: Military as Masculine Space vs. History of Women Service People
  • Homophobia: Military as Hetero Space vs. History of Queer Service People
  • Ableism: Military as Able-bodied vs. History of Extraordinary Health Needs

Sexism: the attacks leveled against transgender service people are in many respects extensions of wars that have been waged against women, queers, crips, people of color, and the poor for decades onto centuries. Approached from a wide-screen historical timeline, transgender exclusion and inclusion in the military may be seen as another wave of the old debate of whether non-men could and should be allowed to serve. In these old assumptions, men were supposed to be cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, white and educated (at the level of command and prestige) or usually, mostly, white and poor (at the level of the commanded). Thus the question of transgender inclusion meets with implicit biases that the military is a place for "real men," meaning cis men. But this tradition of manhood has already been under revision as the complaint that gay men are not "real men" is proven wrong. Likewise, cisgender heterosexual women were and are met with the demand that they can be "just one of the guys" as they fight for the right to fight alongside the "real men." In this vein, the Disney musical Mulan, specifically the song, "Be a Man," gets at a cultural assumption about the military and manhood which is suspicious of other genders, including other ways in which one can "be a man." Consider the line, "you are unfit for the rage of war, pack up, go home, you are through, how could I make a man out of you?" Such a lyric rings heavy in the ears of trans service persons today, just as it rings for the great many queer service people dishonorably discharged from the military on account of their sexuality, as it rings for the centuries of women who could and did fight alongside men in war without recognition. The story of Mulan serving in the military at once represents trans men and women, queers with unspeakable truths and desires, and women doing the work without being able to stand up and claim the credit for fear of being told, "pack up, go home, you are through."

Heterosexism: an excessive amount of critique, attention, and ridicule is leveled at transgender persons through sexually loaded rhetoric. As a scholar but also a reader and target of much anti-transgender argumentation, it is not lost on me how much of the language, terminology, images, and metaphors used by transphobic people are drawn directly from pornography. The term "she-male" is a clear example because a simple Google search with demonstrate that the word is almost exclusively used in porn and only secondarily used in transphobic rants. Other terms such as "tranny" or "trap" likewise drawn from heterosexual anxiety around the intentional sexual engagement with trans sex workers or the fear of unaware sexual engagement with trans persons. Yet even the fascination with trans people's genitals in arguments about what makes a "real man" or "real woman" demonstrates how much of "realness" and "manhood/womanhood" is grounded for many heterosexuals in their sexuality. By this logic, being a man means penetrating women with a penis (as opposed to women-with-penises). As stated above, this not only reduces what it means to "be a man" to a sexual act which is otherwise tangential and irrelevant to military service but an act that is specifically heterosexual. Thus one can understand the exclusion of transgender people from the military as homophobia in another form. This is not surprising, as even within the queer community, extremely femme gay men and extremely butch lesbian women (a certain amount of whom later came out as transgender) were repeatedly hidden or excluded as representing the least socially acceptable version of queerness. The narrative that helped lead to open service in the military for gay men and lesbians was presenting cis queer men and women in ways that contradicted the public image of them as sparkly fairies in drag and the butch leather dykes. One sees even in the "positive" images of transgender persons being represented in the media (in an effort to gain social acceptance) a repetition of the formula, trying to show extraordinarily normative and binary trans men and women as otherwise indistinguishable from the very same cisgender heterosexual men and women that gay men and lesbian women were compared to years prior.

Ableism: across the board, one of the worst things a soldier can be called (insofar as it will exclude them from remaining a soldier) is not simply to be called "not a man," but to be not an "able-bodied" man. All service people in the military (even office clerks) are supposed to be able-bodied combatants that could lift a weapon and fight if the occasion arises. Thus, the exclusion of trans people, women, and queers can be understood as extending from the primary claim that they are not as able-bodied as cisgender, heterosexual men. The line "unfit for the rage of war" is itself an invocation of disability, as the lack of ability or fitness for war. Claims and misinformation that transgender people are innately mentally ill are then also claims that they are unfit for military service. These claims are both the easiest to disprove (for audiences that accept years of medical science and evaluation) and also some of the most problematic to answer without conceding disability in the military as essentially undesirable and unfit. If addressed head-on, this tension can be unpacked to show the complicated network of military duties actually and potentially expected of someone in the armed forces. A wheel-chair may make it hard to move from dug-out to dug-out but may not be a problem for someone driving a tank; unless the tank needs to be abandoned; unless... the list of potential possibilities for service and for an inability to serve multiply with every "what if?" What such evaluations show is that a transgender person is effectively able-bodied in regards to all the same grounds as a cisgender person with all the same capacities. What is also shown is the tangled web of expectation and contingency that defines all the ways a person may be considered able or unable to serve in different circumstances. Inevitably and necessarily, this will also address the ways in which the wages of war produce disabled bodies - literally bodies that have been affected by violence so as to be made disabled. Among the most prominent forms of being disabled by the military is mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The irony then is that the military produces bodies (including minds) that it otherwise would not include if those conditions were derived before and outside military service. 

Example Discussion Questions:


  • Are debates about transgender service in the military separate from other debates around cis women and queer women? In what ways is this a continuation of previous feminist movements and in what ways does it introduce particular concerns? How do you respond to claims that gender segregation should be preserved for biological, reproductive, or traditional reasons?

  • How might anti-transgender sentiment be misplaced or misunderstood homophobia? Is the anger against trans service persons vengeance for allowing LGB persons to serve or is this a completely different phenomenon of hate? How might LGB persons be adding fuel to the transphobia?

  • Should transgender service people completely disassociate themselves from disability identity in order to serve? Should trans service people maintain this association in order to advocate for people with disabilities being allowed to serve? How are advancements in technology and warfare changing what it means to be a soldier in ways that contrast with the demands for bodily capacity during previous trench wars? How inclusive and accessible should the military be? How might being more accessible provide surprising benefits to force effectiveness?


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Recommended Readings

Critical Studies - Regarding Lifting the Original Ban


  • A. Belkin, New England Journal of Medicine, “Caring for Our Trans Troops” (2015)
  • Schaefer, Iyengar, Kadiyala, Kavanagh, Engel, Williams, and Kress, RAND Corporation, "Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly" (2016)

Interviews with Transgender Troops - Regarding the New Bans



  • The Ellen Show, Youtube, "Ellen Chats with Transgender Military Couple Logan & Laila Ireland" (2017)
  • Fox 11 LA, Youtube, "Transgender veteran Shane Ortega discusses Trump's military ban" (2017)

Film Scenes for Close-Reading - Regarding Military Culture

  • Disney, Mulan, "Be A Man" (1998)
  • New Line Cinema, Lord of the Rings: Two Towers, "Eowyn" (2002)

Pre-modern Texts for Historical Reference 

  • Heldris of Cornwall, Roman de Silence, "Sir. Silence"
  • Historical Association for Joan of Arc Studies, Primary Sources and Context Concerning Joan of Arc's Male Clothing
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