The idealized view of the U.S. military is ubiquitous in America. Movies, television, books and ad campaigns promote the archetypal image of the valiant band of brothers of differing colors, ethnicities and faiths fighting arm-in-arm to defeat the nation’s sworn enemies.
However, for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members serving under the heavy, isolating burden of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), this burnished depiction is a stinging misrepresentation.
A new landmark study of transgender veterans reveals that serving in the armed forces is similarly difficult and isolating for gender-variant men and women, who are likewise forced to conceal an intrinsic aspect of themselves under threat of expulsion.
Military policies deem transgender individuals mentally ill and thus unsuitable for enlistment or induction. Even for those who successfully hide their non-traditional gender identities and join, there are suspicions or accusations of being gay. Also, when their active duty term is complete, transgender veterans routinely face discrimination while seeking services from Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.
The “Transgender Veterans Survey” of 827 transgender veterans and active duty personnel represents a strong sampling from what is estimated to be approximately 300,000 veterans in the U.S. who identify as transgender.
The study was designed and administered by the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA). The group was founded in 2003 with the goal of ensuring that transgender military veterans receive fair, equitable and dignified treatment from VA hospitals.
The wide-reaching survey, administered online from Dec. 13, 2007, to May 1, 2008, collected data on demographics (gender identity, income), military history (rank, years served), discrimination in the military, discrimination outside of the military (employment, housing), and experiences with VA hospitals.
The key findings from the study include:
• Participants ranged across all branches of the service, with the highest proportion having served in the Army (38 percent) or Navy (29 percent).
• A full 38 percent of respondents reported that when they were in the military, people suspected or directly asked if they were gay. In addition, 14 percent had been questioned by an officer about their sexual orientation.
• These violations of DADT varied by gender. Transmen were almost twice as likely as transwomen to report they were suspected of being gay.
• About a third of those using a VA hospital had broached the subject of medical gender transition with VA staff. Most of them had their requests denied.
• Respondents reported organizational discrimination at VA hospitals, with 10 percent reporting they were turned away due to being transgender. Also, there were many reports of interpersonal discrimination, including lack of respect from VA doctors (22 percent), nurses (13 percent) and non-medical staff (21 percent).
In a prepared statement, TAVA President Monica Helms observed, “This document will help in showing that the Veterans Administration has done a poor job at living up to its mission statement of ‘…providing high quality, comprehensive health care to veterans in an environment that fosters trust, respect, commitment, compassion and excellence.’
“It also shows that transgender people face a high degree of unemployment, under employment, job discrimination, violence, abuse and hatred across this country.”
The study further revealed that transgender people must be included in the debate over DADT, she stated. “We’re also a target under that failed policy and people pushing for its repeal need to realize that we have to be included.”
Brightfeather leads the way
Helms recognized several individuals for their role in bringing the “Transgender Veterans Survey” to fruition. She particularly lauded TAVA’s cofounder and vice president, Angela Brightfeather.
“It was Angela who had the vision that told her we needed to do this survey,” Helms observed.
Brightfeather, 63, an Apex, N.C., resident who has advocated for the transgender community for 42 years, served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1975. Living as a male at the time, she worked stateside as a Drill Sergeant preparing recruits for the Vietnam War. She left the Army the day the last person was airlifted from the Hotel Saigon.
She told Q-Notes that the impetus for forming TAVA in 2003 was the disparity of services across the VA hospital system (“one hospital might be willing to give hormones but four others wouldn’t”) and the poor treatment many transgender veterans reported receiving from staff (“ranging from refusal of care to snide comments”).
Brightfeather said the “Transgender Veterans Survey” is “yet another timely contribution to the growing and irrefutable evidence, reflecting the discrimination and marginalization experienced by all transgender people in America today.”
The study is also an important tool for educating members of Congress — something TAVA is adept at, Brightfeather asserted.
“We have proven to be a very effective advocacy organization for LGBT issues in Washington,” she said. “Elected officials might not listen to what we have to say as transgender people. But as veterans, with everything from privates to admirals in our organization, they are much more likely to hear us.”
The complete results of the “Transgender Veterans Survey” is available for download at www.tavausa.org.