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LGBT issues

Let us serve: these brave transgender troops just made history in Congress

The Daily Beast

February 27, 2019

Five transgender troops, fighting to overturn President Trump’s proposed ban on trans servicepeople, gave evidence to Congress today, making history with their moving testimonies.

While most media attention was focused on Michael Cohen’s dramatic testimony to Congress Wednesday, history was being made in room 2118 of Washington D.C.’s Rayburn House Office Building.

There, for the first time, five transgender service members gave evidence to the House of Representatives about their experiences of military service, transition, and why they consider President Trump’s proposed ban on trans service members to be unfair and unjust, alongside his administration‘s latest suggestion that trans people can serve as long as they don’t transition.

Navy Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann, who is also president of trans servicepeople group Sparta Pride, sat alongside Army captain Alivia Stehlik, Army captain Jennifer Peace, Staff Sergeant Patricia King, and Marine Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Akira Wyatt. All delivered measured, illuminating, and powerful testimonies.

The five service members and, later in a second panel, Defense Department officials were giving evidence to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

Dremann has served in the Navy for 15 years, Stehlik, an infantry officer and physical therapist, in the army for 10 years, Peace for over 14 years having excelled as an intelligence officer, King for 19 years as an infantry officer, and Wyatt for over seven years in the Navy. All had been deployed across the globe, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and had won many awards for their service.

The group was joined by Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, a veteran who had served with trans service members and who is now a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who said there should be no bar to military service for trans personnel.

Dremann told the sub-committee that each time a barrier had been raised to his service—whether it was the gender assigned to him at birth, his sexual orientation prior to transition, then his gender identity—he had “risen to the occasion” and succeeded as a submariner.

To be openly transgender at work, as he has been since 2016, has afforded Dremann the opportunity “to not only be who but also act as an educator and advocate” on behalf of the 800 members of Sparta Pride. He said that the notion that trans service members damaged unit cohesion and morale was “myths and completely without merit… It just so happens the best and brightest we have to offer happen to be transgender.”

As a company commander, Peace said, no one cared more about company effectiveness than her; if any service person, whoever they were, fell short of what was required of them they should not be in the military.

“All we’re asking for is the opportunity to meet those same standards,” Peace said. Peace pointed out the injustice of careers suddenly being ended, or the disincentive for commanders to invest in trans service people’s careers in light of a ban going into effect. The end result of the ban, inside and outside of the military, was trans people being seen as “less.”

Peace wished they had been allowed to wear their military uniforms to give their evidence, to give them the same professional authority that Department of Defense chiefs have when they opine about enacting a trans ban.

Jackie Speier (D-CA, 14th District), chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, told the service people: “Somehow testifying in front of Congress does not come close to the most courageous thing you have done… despite living in a nation where many discriminate against you.” Speier said that there were currently 14,700 trans service people. “They are exceptional but also exceptionally normal.” The five witnesses had shown “uncommon bravery,” she added.

Noting that Trump’s ban was currently blocked from taking effect by court action, Speier said in spirit it was “discriminatory, unconstitutional, and self-defeating.”

Any trans person who met the standards applicable for service should be able to do so, said Speier, noting that former Defense Secretary Ashton J. Carter’s 2016 policy—allowing trans people to serve openly and ensuring that the Pentagon cover the medical costs of those who wished to undergo gender transition—had been an “unequivocal success.”

All five service chiefs had found no issues of unit cohesion, readiness discipline, and morale related to open transgender service, Speier said. The ban would lead to a return of the “fraught paranoia” of the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“Transgender troops have a right to serve as their full selves and shouldn’t have to live in fear of being found out,” said Speier.

Ranking member Trent Kelly (R-MS, 1st District) said it was clear all five had “met or exceeded the standard of accession and retention in the military. You didn’t ask for or expect special treatment.”

The issues of cost, readiness, and morale were “all red herrings for a policy based in bigotry,” said Peace. The military didn’t have the problem with trans personnel, she said. “It’s only in offices here in D.C.” that you hear any of these issues, from policymakers with “natural biases against people they have never met.”

King spoke of how she had become one of the first women to serve in the infantry. Her peers cared only about how she did her job, not her gender. Generation Z, she added, were growing up in a more enlightened era of knowing trans people and seeing such trans celebrities as Jazz Jennings and Laverne Cox. Being able to be her “whole self” meant when she went to work there were “no secrets, no false bravado, and no hiding.”

Wyatt, who had grown up in the Philippines and emigrated to the U.S. at 15, said her father was a retired U.S. Marine. Her experience had been one of “nothing but positivity,” and “living our truth made us more fully engaged and better at what we do.”

Wyatt related how, in 2014, she had to treat Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, charged with murdering Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman, in the Philippines. He had “no remorse for what he had done,” Wyatt recalled. But still she knew her job meant she had to treat all patients with dignity and respect.

“Ironically, after that encounter, I decided to transition regardless of the senseless violence that could be directed at me for who I am,” Wyatt said.

As award-decorated as the rest of the group, Wyatt said she would follow her fellow servicepeople “to the ends of the earth to ensure they have care.”

The five were asked to describe their most memorable highlights of service. They all, humbly and proudly, told stories of heroism and personal achievement, whether being one of the first in their field, or of helping fight ISIS insurgents.

The claims that transition care were time-consuming were dismissed by all five. None had taken significant time off; some had used their holiday allocation to have surgeries. Dremann said he had taken seven weeks over a three-year period off. “My transition had zero impact on any deployments or readiness issues. I was always available for training.”

Peace said a single pregnancy could lead to 16 months of non-deployability; a significantly greater period of time off than transition surgery.

King said her doctor had welcomed performing her facial feminization surgery, as an important addition to his own knowledge.

Wyatt had taken seven days away, “less time off than an ankle sprain.” Again, the trans service members emphasized they wanted not to be treated differently, but merely the same as everyone else.

Subcommittee members were visibly moved by the testimonies, and all praised and thanked the group for their bravery and service.

Former combat veteran Ruben Gallego (D-AZ, 7th District), told the five: “I would have entrusted my life to you. The country is lucky to have you.”

Lori Trahan (D-MA, 3rd District) asked about their most challenging times in service. Dremann said that his transition had “reinvigorated” him during a particularly demoralizing period of his life.

Peace said the worst moments had been when there had been a lack of clear policy. Once, her bosses did not know whether she should use the male or female bathrooms, and so made her use the Porta Potties used by construction workers.

Peace said she had woken up to President Trump’s original tweet, announcing the trans ban, while on holiday.

“In that moment I really questioned why am I still waking up and putting on this uniform when time and time again I am told I am not able to serve. Why risk my life again, when the people I am serving do not want me here?”

Wyatt agreed, and said she had “almost lost faith” as her superiors “didn’t know what to do with me.”

Dremann said he had been sent home that day by his superiors to take pastoral care of Sparta Pride members, “to calm them down and send right back to work.”

Gil Cisneros (D-CA, 39th District) asked how transition had helped the service personnel perform better at work. Dremann said it meant he was “no longer compartmentalizing parts of my life. I was no longer Blake at home and something else at work.” This was important, Dremann said: The military is not just a job, it is one’s life.

Stehlik said transitioning signaled to others an “authenticity,” which they in turn opened up to. The question that Trump’s ban presented was whether that transition would now signal the end of her career.

The most emotional moment came when Debra Haaland (D-NM, District 1), her voice breaking as she fought back tears, told the group that, “Regardless of what the President says, millions of Americans appreciate the service you’ve given to the country.” Haaland talked about her military vet parents, and her daughter who had come out as gay and queried why she had to come out when a straight sibling would not. “Point well taken,” said Haaland. “Everybody should just be who they are and everyone should accept them for that.”

Anthony Brown (D-MD, 4th District) said the issue recalled President Truman’s executive order enforcing integration within the armed forces in 1948.

Brown quoted then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who, marking the 60th anniversary of the order in 2008, said: “No aspect of Black Americans’ quest for justice and equality under the law has been nobler than what has been called ‘the fight for the right to fight.’” Addressing the trans service people, Brown said, “We are with you in a very noble fight for all Americans to fight.”

Thanking the group for their “extraordinary service,” Speier said she couldn’t think of a panel of witnesses who had shown more “talent, courage, and a willingness to put forth a position that is truly appropriate and to do so with the kind of clarity and conviction that all of you have done. You are hopefully going to be part of an education that will allow us to do the right thing.”

After a brief recess, the subcommittee questioned James N. Stewart, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Vice Admiral Raquel Bono, director of the Defense Health Agency. Stewart claimed, to the committee’s collective incredulity, that there was no ban on trans personnel, but that the Trump administration was focused on the issue of gender dysphoria.

To even more incredulity, Stewart said trans people could join the military, as long as they did not transition, and remained in their “biological sex.”

Speier told him such a proposal belonged “in the Dark Ages, not the military of the 21st century.”

Stewart’s answers became more and more confused to the point that Speier gently told him that he was actively hurting his case.

Bono, meanwhile, dismissed the opinions of the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association, and other leading medical organizations who have all stated that being transgender shouldn’t be a bar to military service.

Instead, Bono said she was basing her opinions on trans people conducting more medical visits and having a higher rate of suicide ideation than their non-trans colleagues off of individual patients—case details unknown. Bono presented no evidence to support any of her contentions.

Trahan stated that the Department of Defense had spent $8 million on trans-related medical costs since 2016, 0.016 percent of the Pentagon’s annual healthcare spend. The retraining costs consequent on firing a trans military pilot were three times more than the trans-related care costs.

“Why,” Trahan asked, “would the DoD spend more money replacing pilots we can’t afford to lose, when we’re already so short on pilots we’re in a readiness crisis?”

Brown condemned Stewart for comparing being transgender to “heart conditions and diabetes.”

Seeking to detangle Stewart’s focus on gender dysphoria, Brown presented this scenario to Stewart. “I’m a trans male. I’ve been through transition. I want to enlist. Can I enlist in the army?”

“No,” said Stewart.

“That’s a ban then on a transgender male who’s been through transition. That’s discrimination,” said Brown.

“We are not talking about heart surgery and diabetes,” Brown said furiously, but rather “a group of Americans who identify as transgender.” No group of Americans prone to heart attacks had ever insisted they wanted to serve, he added.

“You’re mixing up apples and oranges and I don’t appreciate that,” he told Stewart. The “special accommodations” Stewart was invoking harked back to the bar on integrated service and “don’t ask don’t tell,” Brown said. Telling trans people they could only join the military if they didn’t transition, was “just like don’t ask don’t tell,” he added.