Professor Laura Sjoberg: On Transgender People and the Military

Almost a year ago, following the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the combat ban against women, the United States military ended its ban on transgender soldiers. Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter argued at the time that “we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who can best accomplish the mission.” The move removed one of the last remaining barriers to any individual volunteering for military service in the US. The “implementation fact sheet”, which accompanied the announcement of policy, included a phase-in plan, on the fair treatment of currently serving trans* troops, training of current members of the military on trans* inclusion, provision of appropriate health care, and admission for new troops regardless of gender identity. A recent Army directive discusses in detail the process for accommodating a service member who is transitioning while on active duty. Many trans* members of the military, including Navy Lt. Cdr. Blake Dremann and Army Captain Jennifer Peace, have told stories of increased freedom to self-identify their genders in the wake of the lifting of the ban. An estimated 15,000 trans* soldiers are now protected from being discharged due to their gender identity.

The relationship between trans* people and militaries is in the news again. In mid-April, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton lost an appeal of a homicide conviction for killing trans* woman Jennifer Laude in a motel room in Olongapo. Pemberton had met Laude at a disco and brought her back to his room. Claiming to be “defending his dignity” after he found Laude “pretending” to be a woman, Pemberton knocked her unconscious and drowned her in a toilet bowl. Earlier this month, President Trump also nominated Mark Green to be Secretary of the Army of the United States. Green has characterized being transgender as a ‘disease’ and advocated against the service of transgender individuals in the U.S. military. Overseas, there has been heated discussion about the Thai military forcing trans* women into conscription because they were male at birth, and the resultant stigma and discrimination that they face while serving.

What is at stake now in the U.S. military? And how, if at all, are these stories related? First, as Cynthia Enloe once noted in reference to women in the military, the inclusion of previously excluded groups in institutions does not automatically change a culture of exclusion into a culture of inclusion. In other words, trans* soldiers in the United States military could not expect the military’s biases to change immediately with the policy. Trans* members of the U.S. military have noted continuing discriminatory statements and attitudes made by some cisgender soldiers. Though it is high time that the U.S. military changed its sex- and gender- backwards policies and these recent changes might demonstrate progress, it would be wrong to see them as heralding the full-scale deconstruction of sex and gender boundaries within the US military, particularly as to the masculinism of military culture. Actual change might be slow, piecemeal, or even not coming at all.

Second, like in the case of trans* women in Thailand, sometimes formal standards of ‘equality’ can be used as tools of discrimination. The state’s refusal to allow those women to change their sex assigned at birth for the purpose of conscription, combined with a claim to treat all ‘men’ equally, results in a serious disparate impact on trans* women, who are conscripted into a military that does not have the tools to include them safely.

Third, those actively opposed to LGBTQ equality within the military might slow the formal transition to openness and education to decrease discriminatory treatment.

 

Fourth, as Jennifer Laude’s story shows, there is a continued stigma associating trans* persons and dishonesty.

Finally, though, I suggest that these discussions of trans* bodies in militaries have one more thing in common: they demonstrate the integral part that notions of gender roles play in the identities of states and their militaries. A number of scholars (myself included) have argued that the U.S. military’s quick rollback of discriminatory policies against gay people, women, and trans* people fit into a narrative which the U.S. military presents about its progressive nature, in contrast to those of countries that the U.S. military might be fighting. Ash Carter’s announcement of the lifting of the trans* ban said as much. Carter contended that the move would “send a message to the rest of the world that the U.S. isn’t behind everyone.” United States military, even as it reconstitutes itself to be more inclusive, relies for its continued collective identity on particular (though, changing) notions of military masculinities. Today’s military masculinities stake their claim to greatness on inclusivity, but retain a number of the exclusive principles and practices that pre-date the post-9/11 inclusive military. As such, as Aaron Belkin explains, “military masculinity’s capacity for camouflaging and containing imperial contradictions has depended on an alignment in which the normativity of an individual soldier’s masculinity had been equated with the normativity of the military-as-organization and American empire.”

All of this means that, while it was a watershed moment in both military history and in the history of the inclusion of trans* people in the United States more generally, the lifting of the trans* ban in the US military should not – and cannot – be seen as a last step in the creation of a de-gendered military and the deconstruction of an institution that, for a long time, was exclusively constituted by (or, claimed the right of exclusive constitution by) straight men. Instead, recent policy changes might be seen as a last step representationally and an early step culturally – where the deconstruction of gender roles and the openness to all genders, sexes, and sexualities is a complicated and potentially transformative goal, but not an immediate reality.

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