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LGBT issues

Transgender troops tell President Trump: talk to us before you ban us

The Daily Beast

March 14, 2019

With April 12 set as the start date of President Trump’s ban, transgender troops say they want to talk to the president in person—and make him realize the value of their service.

If President Trump is ready and prepared to listen, transgender troops want to talk to him face-to-face.

Captain Jennifer Peace, director-at-large of the trans service personnel advocacy and support group Sparta Pride, told The Daily Beast that she hoped President Trump, Vice President Pence, and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan would be prepared to meet transgender troops in person to discuss what the trans troop ban means, and its effects on existing personnel and on those wishing to enlist. Peace would also like trans troops to be able to address the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

The ban is set to take effect on the just-revealed date of April 12—a ban the Trump administration and Department of Defense refuses to call a ban.

“As far as I am aware, Secretary Shanahan has not met with any trans service-members,” said Peace. (The Department of Defense did not return a Daily Beast request for comment.) “We would certainly welcome any meeting with the president and vice president. Sitting down and speaking with trans people makes a difference. I used to think that was a trite and conciliatory thing to say, but it really can.

“Sitting opposite us, we don’t seem as ‘other’ and different, but your soldiers who you’ve been charged to take care of and be responsible for. It makes all the difference. We are just soldiers. There is absolutely no one I wouldn’t talk to about this. I want them to know, ‘Here’s who we are and what we do every day, and we are no different to anyone else and no less capable than anyone else. And please, just let us do our jobs.’

Peace added, “All I would say to President Trump is, ‘I’ve been here serving this country for 15 years and I’m going to continue to be here, along with (the estimated) 15,000 other trans servicepeople. We all need the freedom and opportunity to meet the standards of service.’ I think if he could see that maybe he would change his way of thinking about this.”

Peace also revealed that while waiting for the recent history-making congressional hearings into the ban to begin, she had been approached by James N. Stewart, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, who said, “This should be fun today.”

Peace told The Daily Beast she was shocked by the senior Department of Defense official’s words.

As The Daily Beast reported, Peace, now an intelligence officer with over 14 years of service behind her, was one of a group of five award-garlanded transgender service members giving evidence to the House of Representatives for the first time.

In late February, all five gave widely praised testimonies to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel about their experience of service, transition, and why they felt that the proposed ban was unjust.

Peace said, “I said to him (Stewart), ‘I have been a company commander. I have discharged people from the military. I never enjoyed it, and I don’t know how you can be here enjoying attempting to kick out 13,000 trans service members.’ I don’t know what about that was fun to him.

“I’m still trying to process it. He made no apology. But the way he said it really did make it seem the Department of Defense was enjoying the implementation of restrictions of transgender service. It was heated, and I turned away. I don’t know if it was purposeful malice. At the minimum there was a lack of empathy and compassion for what we were there to do.”

The Department of Defense did not return a Daily Beast request for comment about Stewart’s alleged remark Wednesday.

Peace said she wished she and the four other trans personnel giving evidence to Congress had been allowed to wear their military uniforms to give their evidence, to give them the same professional authority that the Department of Defense officials present had when wearing theirs.

Peace said telephone calls from trans solders worried for their futures, livelihoods, and careers in the armed forces had immediately started coming into Sparta Pride after the announcement of the April 12 start date on Tuesday night, following the lifting of the final injunction against the ban.

The group, said its president Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann—who has served in the Navy for 15 years—represents both its 800 members and the estimated thousands of other trans service-members in the military affected by the new policy.

As the AP first reported late Tuesday, any troops diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” after April 12 will be prohibited from taking hormones or undergoing transition surgery.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Department of Defense spokesperson equated being transgender to having a “medical condition.”

“Transgender individuals are allowed to serve openly in the military as long as they are willing and able to meet the standards of their biological sex,” a spokesperson wrote. “Those who have received medical transition treatment will be disqualified, this is standard for many medical conditions.”

The DoD policy reverses the lifting of the ban on serving trans personnel announced in 2016 by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The directive laid out guidelines for discharging troops if they are “unable or unwilling to adhere to all applicable standards, including the standards associated with his or her biological sex, or seeks transition to another gender.”

People who have transitioned from their “biological sex,” in the DoD’s terminology, to another gender will not be able to enlist.

For those already serving, and who have not received a diagnosis as such, the race is now on, pre-April 12, to get a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria.”

A transgender soldier serving in the military without a diagnosis of gender dysphoria after April 12 will be required to act on duty in a manner and fashion the Department of Defense deems to be acceptable according to “biological sex.”

“This is not a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military,” a senior Pentagon official said in a conference call on Wednesday. “In fact, the policy actually prohibits the denial of accession or involuntary separation solely on the basis of gender identity.”

Peace said, “We’ve heard from trans soldiers who have not been ‘diagnosed’ and who are in a state of panic because they are located somewhere where there is no medic who can diagnose them, and they won’t be somewhere in the next 31 days where they can be diagnosed.”

Dremann said, “I am extremely disappointed. We had worked really hard to make open transgender service a success, and it hurts to see it taken away.” As well as Sparta Pride helping those enlisting or within the military do all they can to transition under the new policy, Dremann said it was incumbent on all those out-trans servicepeople “to become the faces of open transgender service. They have a responsibility to carry that mantle. We have a responsibility. It’s imperative that we continue to show that we are valuable and assets to the military that we serve.”

Peace agreed. “To trans service personnel, I’d say, ‘Do your job and do it well. It’s unfair that you have to be the best, but you do every single day. You can’t just meet the standards, you have to exceed them and be the absolute best. You are representing the entire trans community. You have to be your best every single day until this fight is over.’”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA, 14th District), chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, told The Daily Beast that the ban was “cockamamie and flagrantly unconstitutional and will be overturned eventually.” It was “offensive and irrational” to insist on trans troops using bathrooms according to their “biological sex,” said Speier.

Speier said she was “hopeful” that another legal case would be filed, leading to the postponement of the ban taking effect on April 12. The plaintiffs in existing cases could file further motions in court, she added.

“It’s devastating for those service-members who are trans and who have been serving admirably and with distinction, and it sends a horrific message to transgender people in our community who would like to serve. They have overwhelming support. This is not an issue, it’s fabricated and reprehensible. It makes no sense as it’s written. Within a year and a half we’ll either have a court decision or change in administration, and we will get rid of it.”

Despite claims that trans-related surgeries and healthcare are costly, the Department of Defense has 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 are three times more than the trans-related care costs.

The trans personnel who spoke to Congress said any time they had taken off related to their transitions had been minimal and often in their own holiday time.

The sense of alarm over the April 12 date being set means that “good soldiers are already negatively impacted. It’s taking away from their ability to complete their missions,” said Peace. “There is also a certain feeling of resilience. We’ve been through this before. There was a time when trans people couldn’t serve, and then we could, and now we can’t, and we know the time will come again when trans people can serve openly.”

Peace said there was “also a feeling of hopelessness out there, for the junior soldier who had followed their squad leader or platoon sergeant. Now they have to take on the monumental task facing the Department of Defense, the vice president and the Commander in Chief, who have all said, ‘You don’t have a place in this military any more. It’s a tough position to put a junior soldier in. How do you stand up and challenge defense policy when all you want to do is serve your country and focus on your mission?”

Dremann said that as well as pursuing ongoing legal cases, he wanted to ensure more trans servicepeople’s stories were heard by members of Congress, “to see that we’re not some kind of bogeymen trying to get free surgeries, and that we value our country and service to our nation. We are not after special treatment. Transition-related care makes us better at what we do. The ban, and what it asks of trans personnel, is unbelievably cruel.”

Riley Dosh, the first openly transgender recruit from West Point, was discharged and had been actively trying to get back into the military, Peace said. “Now she may not be able to as it is considered accession.”

Peace had also heard from a trans naval pilot, also trying to regain her commission after being discharged. “Now that may be on hold or impossible to do. All these people are trained and qualified for the jobs they want to serve in. Others we have heard from have not come out to their spouse or children or their units. One said they hadn’t come out to their company commander as he had made anti-LGBT remarks. A lot of people are affected by the very close date of implementation.”

The Daily Beast approached The Department of Defense for comment on how the policy had been formulated and how it would work in practice and is yet to receive a response.

Gillian Branstetter, spokesperson for the National Center For Transgender Equality (NCTE), said the DoD’s laying out of instructions was “historic, in that this is the first time that the military has removed barriers of service laid arbitrarily against a group, then reinstated them. They didn’t do this after desegregation, or lifting the ban on women in combat roles, or after the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ This is a step backwards for the country, and the president is solely to blame for forcing the hand of the military that wants and needs transgender troops. This is all about the president’s own bigotry.”

The American Medical Association and American Psychological Association are among many medical organizations that have decried the ban, which was based, said Brandstetter, on “debunked, junk science.”

The NCTE wants people to reach out to their representatives and senators to support a bipartisan bill introduced last month by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Speier to allow trans troops to serve openly.

The effect of the ban would be four-fold, said Branstetter.

“New recruits, if they enlist before or after April 12, and if they have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in their medical records or are found out to be transgender, will be blocked from joining. Trans people trying to re-enlist, or who were enlisted and honorably discharged and are looking to rejoin, will be prevented from re-enlisting after April 12.

“People who have enlisted and who haven’t received a gender dysphoria diagnosis are in severe bind. We are expecting a rush of people to get diagnoses before April 12. Because if they get a diagnosis they’ll join the fourth group who are currently enlisted and have a gender dysphoria diagnosis. They will be ‘grand-fathered’ into the military according to the Pentagon. There are about 900 people in that last category. Dozens more will fit into that third category.”

The effect of the ban, said Branstetter, will be that trans people consider that the military is “completely closed off to them. This is a ban against all trans people, a severe historical step backwards for this country, and should be treated as such.”

Branstetter added that there was a “moral imperative” for Congress to act as a check against Trump, whose policy “was based on little more than prejudice,” putting transgender people “into an awful position of having to choose between having medically necessary care and serving their country—care that does not conflict with their service, to solve an imaginary problem that does not exist.

“Anyone who has experienced the pain and indignity of being forced to stay in the closet knows it is not just liberating to live as who you are but strengthening. All five of them said that transitioning had helped them be better at their jobs, which is what trans people anywhere, doing all kinds of jobs, know to be true.”

Captain Emma Shinn, 42, served for almost 20 years, mostly in the Marine Corps. She is planning to return to active duty after retiring in 2014 from her last position as a lawyer.

“I grew up playing Marines,” she told The Daily Beast. “When my friends and I played army in the backwoods of Mississippi I was a Marine. It was a lifelong calling for me. I always knew I was capable of doing the job, it was whether our nation would allow me to do it.”

Shinn, then bisexual, enlisted under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ serving where she could have been discharged had her sexuality become known. “The parallel is hard to deny,” she said. “We are now entering a period of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell for transgender folks.’”

Shinn came out as transgender at work nine days after the ban was lifted in 2016. “It was really scary, but it felt like a huge weight off my shoulders. I was able to be a better lawyer, parent and friend since then.” No longer did she feel as if she was “two people; the one at work who switched pronouns and never talked about boyfriends. I couldn’t bring my full self to work and it was exhausting. I look back at all that effort hiding who I was, and think of how much I could have bought to my job. It wasn’t a constant fear, more an overarching sense of ‘Who is going to find out, and what is going to happen?’

Under open service, “no one cares in actual units,” said Shinn. “They care if you can put rounds on targets and if you can help accomplish the mission.”

Shinn simply wishes that trans servicepeople could be allowed to serve alongside their colleagues free from discrimination.

“I don’t want to be the trans officer. I want to be Captain Shinn. And do my job and live my life. This flip-flop in policy and discrimination is a distraction from our service. This was not a topic of conversation until Trump’s first tweets about this (in July 2017) and then everything that has come from it.”

Despite the imminence of the ban taking effect, Shinn is looking forward to returning to work and serving alongside her fellow Marines. “My friends are excited to welcome her back. It’s an opportunity to show them exactly who I am, and the Marine Corps will be better for it.”

Congressman Anthony Brown (D-MD, 4th District), a veteran himself, said that he would continue to fight the ban, and for trans troops’ “right to fight.”

“It’s clear that this policy is a ban,” Brown told The Daily Beast. “The five service chiefs have admitted trans troops don’t impact readiness or are disruptive. The service-members who spoke to Congress met and exceeded every standard we throw at soldiers. To tell service-members they cannot serve if they transition: that’s a ban on transgender people.”

Brown conceded that there may not be anything that could be achieved legislatively before April 12, “but we will fight this, and sooner or later we will prevail, and ensure that the military represents what America is: it respects and welcomes all Americans regardless of race, ethnicity, faith, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity so long as you meet its standards.”

With fewer and fewer Americans willing to serve, it seemed bizarre to be excluding those who want to, Brown added. “This is a discriminatory and malicious ban. This is coming from Donald Trump, not military leadership.”

Brown said trans servicepeople should serve if they felt able to, and see the ban as another civil rights battle in a long line dating back to Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act, and the ongoing struggle for LGBT equality. “Be true to yourself, value and respect who you are and what you stand for.”

Peace said it had been “surreal” to see the April 12 date set. She had expected something would prevent the ban from being enacted: Congress taking action, a successful court challenge. “It was one of those things you see coming, but never think is actually going to happen.”

She said she came home feeling very tense, and then she and her wife took their three dogs for a long hike in some nearby woods, which helped clear her mind before a family dinner. Then it was on to helping the trans troops calling Sparta Pride for advice.

Peace said she has had “total support” from her colleagues, old and new, in the last 24 hours. Her boss asked her on Wednesday what he could do to help her. She hopes other allies of trans servicepeople make their support known to their colleagues.

Even though Peace came out after the ban was lifted in 2016, she worries about the Trump administration eventually targeting all trans troops, and the “secondary effects” of the discriminatory ban taking effect after April 12.

She recalled the time before 2016 of not being able to take her wife or children to deployment ceremonies out of fear something revealing would be said or perceived. She said that people hid, and hid their lives, in a military where the personal is professional and where families and loved ones are woven into the fabric of service life.

The Trump ban, Peace said, meant not only limiting a rich talent pool, but would also deter a younger, pro-equality generation from enlisting.

Peace herself had thought about leaving due to the toxicity of prejudice belying the ban. “What kept me here is that I think we need a lot more leaders like me in the military. Leaving doesn’t help. So, I want to stick around as long as I can, to be the kind of leader I wish I had when I was young in the military. I can’t make the organization better by leaving. I’ve got to stick around and fix it. I haven’t given up at all. This is the beginning of a new chapter of the fight.”