The repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ushered in a new era of acceptance in the armed forces for thousands of Americans. For almost two decades, the ban on out gay servicemembers was an issue fueling the LGBT-rights movement. With President Barack Obama’s signature – following a Pentagon working group, surveys, and approval from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense – the ban became a thing of the past.
But for some members of the military, the fight for acceptance is long from over. Although 2011’s repeal of ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” opened the door for gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers, transgender Americans must continue life in the closet in order to serve their country.
Despite the repeal of DADT, a medical regulatory ban remains in place for those who identity as transgender. Not only is evidence of transition therapy grounds for disqualification for potential recruits, so is openly identifying as transgender, which the Pentagon considers a psychiatric condition.
Transgender veterans who transition after leaving the armed forces face other obstacles as well. Upon discharge from the military, servicemembers receive a DD-214 form with their full name. Some transgender veterans who seek to change the name on the form, which is used to secure veteran benefits, are not always able to do so.
The Department of Veterans Affairs issued a directive in June 2011 providing health care for some transgender medical needs, such as hormone treatments, but the VA does not provide sex-reassignment surgery.
”There’s a lot of education that needs to be done among the public about what it means to be a transgender American, which SLDN along with our allies are working on,” Zeke Stokes, communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told Metro Weekly. ”But it’s not something that’s going to happen quickly.”
While the end of DADT was only made possible by a shift in the political climate and balance of power in Washington, Stokes says the time does not seem right for advancing for transgender equality in the military.
”The make up of this Congress doesn’t lead us to believe there would be any successful congressional action,” Stokes said.
Transgender people have faced an uphill battle educating straight and gay people alike about gender identity. Having successfully repealed DADT, many activists have shifted their focus to marriage-equality battles playing out on the state level and in the courts. Securing rights for transgender servicemembers has not been the call to arms that repeal of DADT was.
In many instances, the ”T” in LGBT is left undefined and undiscussed, even among the gay community. In a video statement delivered during an event at the Pentagon honoring Pride month in June, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta thanked only gay and lesbian servicemembers for their service to their country.
”Before the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ you faithfully served your country with professionalism and courage,” Panetta said. ”And just like your fellow servicemembers, you put your country before yourself. And now, after repeal, you can be proud of serving your country and be proud of who you are when in uniform.”
Although Panetta said he remains ”committed to removing as many barriers as possible to make America’s military a model of equal opportunity,” there are no plans in the foreseeable future to alter military medical regulations to allow transgender Americans to serve their country openly.