By Charles Hoy-Ellis, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Utah College of Social Work
Transgender people have served honorably and bravely in militaries for as long as there have been militaries.
Consider Joan of Arc. We know nothing about her gender identity or sexual orientation, however the historical record overwhelmingly shows she wore armor as clothing and took a prominent public service role reserved exclusively for men, leading the French armies to victory against the English in 1429. This dress and role could easily be read as gender-non-conforming. In fact, her conviction and subsequent burning alive at the stake were based on heresy, in part because she had dared wear men’s clothes and act in a man’s role to save her nation. Yet, it would be difficult to argue that Joan of Arc’s decision to wear armor and cut her hair short made her any less effective as a soldier or a leader.
It has been said that history repeats itself. A more accurate observation states that “history does not repeat itself; people repeat history.” And so, many are clueless when it comes to history.
Last year, on June 30, 2016, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the repeal of the ban on transgender Americans serving openly in the military. This long-overdue measure followed the Pentagon’s repeal of the notorious “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DODT) policy in 2011, which allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) Americans to serve in the military on the explicit condition that they kept their sexual orientation a secret.
Although it is challenging to come up with unimpeachable estimates, it is believed that there are some 134,000 transgender veterans and retirees from the Guard and Reserves, (Gates & Herman, 2014). In a large community-based research project studying LGBT adults aged 50 and older, 41% of transgender older participants indicated that they have served in the military (Hoy-Ellis et al., 2017). Eighteen other nations—including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia—have, for years, allowed transgender citizens to serve openly and proudly in their militaries. The reality is that through joint military exercises, the U.S. military has already worked alongside openly transgender soldiers… and civilization as we know it has not collapsed!
Research shows that military exclusion of transgender service members has significant physical, mental, and social health outcomes. For some transgender Americans, having served in the military appears to be associated with lower levels of depression and higher mental health related quality of life (MHQOL) in later life (Hoy-Ellis et al., 2017).
While most, if not all marginalized groups experience minority stressors due to their minority group status, Meyer (2003) specified a Minority Stress Model that was an initial conceptualization of the causes and consequences of dealing with LGBT-specific minority stressors on top of general stressors that most people experience. Minority stressors include actual experiences of discrimination and victimization and fear of being rejected by important others (such as friends or family members), should one’s LGBT identity become known. Also included are internalized identity stigma (the internalization of stereotypical, negative attitudes, values, or beliefs regarding marginalized social groups), and hiding who one is to make oneself a less visible target for discrimination and victimization. While hiding one’s LGBT identity might be helpful in the short term, over the long-term this becomes yet another chronic stressor that has significant negative physical, mental, and social health outcomes. Fredriksen-Goldsen and colleagues (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al., 2014) built upon minority stress concepts and incorporated a resilience framework that also attends to the life course perspective to give a fuller, more robust conceptualization of the multicontextual, multilevel dynamics of everyday LGBT lives.
The detrimental impact of prohibiting transgender Americans from serving in the military is not limited to the individual.
Best estimates suggest that there are approximately 15,000 currently serving transgender military service members (Gates & Herman, 2014). There is abundant evidence that transgender (and LGB) Americans have served honorably in the U.S. military for decades upon decades (Canaday, 2009). Far from destroying morale, LGBT service members have contributed every bit as much as their heterosexual counterparts. One of the cornerstones of unit cohesiveness is trust; trust relies on openness and honesty. Allowing transgender Americans to serve openly would significantly reduce the impact of minority stress. Stating categorically that our transgender citizens cannot honorably serve in any capacity will severely and negatively impact the mental and physical health of transgender military service members and ultimately diminish the effectiveness of our military.
Canaday, M. (2009). The straight state: Sexuality and citizenship in twentieth-century America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fredriksen-Goldsen, K. I., Simoni, J. M., Kim, H.-J., Lehavot, K., Walters, K. L., Yang, J., . . . Muraco, A. (2014). The health equity promotion model: Reconceptualization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) health disparities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(6), 653–683. doi:10.1037/ort0000030
Gates, G. J., & Herman, J. (2014). Transgender Military Service in the United States. Los Angeles: The Williams Institute: UCLA School of Law.
Hoy-Ellis, C. P., Shiu, C., Sullivan, K. M., Kim, H. J., Sturges, A. M., & Fredriksen-Goldsen, K. I. (2017). Prior military service, identity stigma, and mental health among transgender older adults. The Gerontologist, 57(suppl 1), S63-S71. doi:10.1093/geront/gnw173
Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), 674 – 697. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.674
The views and opinions expressed on the interACTION blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Utah or the College of Social Work.