WikiLeaker Chelsea Manning, who announced today that she'll be living out her 35-year prison sentence as a woman, served in the military until 2010.
It wasn't until a year later that openly gay and women were permitted to serve in the military, when President Obama officially repealed the military's long-running DADT policy in 2011. It was a step forward, but one that left transgender soldiers behind: It is still forbidden to serve as openly transgender under the Department of Defense's current policy.
To find out what it's like to be in the military as a transgender person, Bustle spoke to Autumn Sandeen, a trans-activist and navy retiree who served in the navy from 1980 until her retirement in 2000. This May, Sandeen became the first transgender service member to be recognized by the Pentagon, when the government finally changed her retiree gender records from "male" to "female."
"The reality was, I knew," Sandeen said of her gender identity. "I first knew when I was 14, and I talked myself out of it. I was in the military, and I wasn't capable of hiding it well... It wasn't that they read me as female; they read me as gay. I was sexually harassed. I had a subordinate and executive officer who did not think gay people belonged in the military."
Until 2011, if the military found out you were gay, they were duty-bound to eliminate you from ranks. Though that no longer applies for the gay community, if military doctors discover evidence of transgender surgery during the initial medical exam, you're almost certainly out.
Cross-dressing is also regarded as a violation of military rules, and the same applies for "male" and "female" grooming standards, so dressing as the opposite sex is forbidden. And if your officers discover that you identify as a different sex, gender dysphoria counts as a mental illness, and that will also — you guessed it — disqualify you from service.
Could all of the stress of hiding her identity have contributed to Manning's psychological breakdown, and, furthermore, her decision to leak more than 700,000 classified files? Sandeen says the stress certainly could have led to a psychological breakdown, but cautions against that defense when it comes to the leaks.
"Being transgender does not make you a security risk. That’s getting lost in all of this. She has to take responsibility for her actions. As an activist myself, I definitely know how much stress she was under, and serving in silence," Sandeen said. "I know what it’s like to be an idealist and be under a lot of stress. It’s really hard to serve in the military, but it’s not an excuse to release classified information."
Sandeen also noted another media conflation: the transgender community didn't "get lost" in the DADT repeal — they were never a part of it in the first place. Because DADT had only banned gay and bisexual soldiers from serving openly, repealing it had no effect on the transgender community whatsoever.
"We’re still stigmatized to a level that gay people were 20 or 30 years ago," Sandeen said. "Everybody knows a gay person, but how many trans people do you have in your circle of friends?"
Being gay hasn't been referred to as a "disorder" — as in, a pathology — for decades. But it wasn't until last year that "gender identity disorder" was replaced with "gender dysphoria" in the DSM-V, which removed the "disorder" element.
The trans community is lagging behind the gay community in terms of equal rights, but how long until they catch up? Last month, a $1.35 million grant was awarded to the Palm Center's Transgender Military Initiative. The money will be used to study, they say, "whether and how the U.S. armed forces could include transgender troops without undermining readiness."
"They’ll be doing work on the kind of policies you’re going to need in place," Sandeen said. "Are there any kind of accommodations you would have to make for trans people? Where are they going to the bathroom, and where will you sleep? How dangerous would it be to send someone into combat with testosterone and other hormones in them?"
The Palm Center's initiative is the largest examination of transgender soldiers to date, but there could still be a long way to go before the Department of Defense allows soldiers to identify themselves as transgender and remain in service. Since this year's DSM-V means gender dysmorphia is no longer classified as a mental "disorder," the military will have a more difficult time labeling it a mental illness — but that's unlikely to lead to immediate change. (After all, the "disorder" label was removed from homosexuality back in the 70s, and it wasn't until 2011 that the military managed to catch up.)
Considering studies suggest that transgender people are twice as likely to serve in the military as is the general population, there certainly seems to be more than enough reason to expedite the process.