Trans in the Military: How the Face of Service is Changing

trans-military
Photo by Cassidy DuHon

Note: Since this article was published, the trans military ban has been lifted.

One afternoon long ago, Sara Simone, who was raised as a boy, threw on some of her mother’s clothes and headed out to the playground to be with the other kids. She didn’t think much about the blouse or the long skirt she was wearing. Rather, she thought the other kids might find it interesting, cool even. Instead, they laughed and ridiculed her, called her a “faggot” and “queer.” It would be a long time before Simone donned women’s clothing in public again. 

Hers was the only black family on the block in white, blue-collar Allentown, Pa. Her father was a religious zealot who beat his wife. Sensing something out of the ordinary about their child, Simone’s parents sent her to therapy and then to Catholic school, where she was pressured to join the football team and became a star athlete before heading to college. There Simone had her first sexual encounter with a man.

OK, I guess I’m gay, she thought. That’s cool, but it still doesn’t seem exactly right. These issues of identity eventually led her to drop out of school and join the armed forces.

“I went into the military trying to be what everyone wanted me to be. That was the most macho thing I could do. I was really trying to hide the gender that I was,” she recalls over margaritas at a restaurant in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C. 

Slideshow: Meet 7 Trans Soldiers Who Served Our Country

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Around 1980, at age 20, Simone was stationed in Panama in close quarters with her hyper-masculine Army buddies and would covertly, on occasion, cross-dress. 

“There was no YouTube. There were no role models,” she says. “There were no words for what I was feeling, so I thought I was the only one in the world who felt that way.”

This was an era when even “don’t ask, don’t tell” would have been a radical step forward. Simone was part of the military police, “so I was supposed to be upholding military law,” she says. “If anyone found out what I was doing, I would have been court-martialed, or beaten up, or killed.” 

On the weekends, the young privates would head into town, Panama City, with a fresh paycheck to get drunk, take drugs, and hire prostitutes. “I wasn’t into women, so that didn’t interest me much,” Simone says. On such an excursion, walking down the street, Simone spotted a young Panamanian who caught her eye. 

“There was something interesting about her, something different. I thought she had just a wee bit of masculine features. This was the most interesting-looking person I’d ever seen in my life.” The woman was about 19, with bronze skin and long, straight black hair. She wore denim overalls, one side unhinged, over a small T-shirt and, Simone noticed as she got closer, light, barely noticeable stubble along her jawline. Simone approached, barely speaking Spanish, while the woman knew only rudimentary English, and ended up at her apartment, where a group of the woman’s friends came over to party. 

“One of them started to change clothes in front of me, and when she took her pants off, I thought, Oh! OK, look at her! For some reason, I didn’t feel shocked. It was like a revelation. I started thinking, This is who I am. I felt like I was around people like me. It was the happiest night I had in Panama.”

Simone never saw the bunch again. In fact, it would be another 30 years, when Simone began to transition into living full-time as a woman, before she would knowingly meet another trans person. To this day, she still thinks about the young Panamanian. Back at the base, it was a different story. Simone sank deeper into depression and attempted suicide. She remained in the military for another decade and left with an honorable discharge. Today she works for a VA contractor, helping to connect recently returning vets with social services. 

By one estimate, there are 12,800 active-duty trans people in the U.S. military. Recent research suggests that transgender people are more likely to have served in the U.S. military compared with the rest of the population. A 2014 study by UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates 15,500 active-duty trans people and another 134,300 who have served—amounting to a rate of participation of 21% compared with about 11% for the general population. 

At present, the condition of gender dysphoria disqualifies people from serving openly as trans in the U.S. military. Last July, however, Defense Secretary Ash Carter issued a de facto moratorium on dismissing transgender people from the armed forces. And on May 27 this year, the ban is set to end, according to a draft timeline circulated among officials last August—with ramifications possibly including a pilot program to provide leaves of absence for surgery or hormone therapy. 

In 2013, Kristin Beck (born Christopher Beck)—a member of the elite Navy SEALs who completed 13 tours of duty in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bosnia and received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and a Joint Service Commendation decoration—made a splash in the press when she came out as trans. She’s currently running for the House of Representatives in Maryland’s fifth Congressional District. 

The highest-ranking openly transgender official in the Obama administration is Amanda Simpson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, the equivalent of being a two-star general. Her office, according to its web page, sets policy with regard to the “energy required for training, moving, and sustaining military forces and weapons platforms for military operations,” including “energy used by ships, aircraft, combat vehicles, and tactical power generators.” 

The current ban, which applies to those in uniform, does not affect Simpson, who is a civilian employee of the Department of Fefense. She began working there in 2011 and transitioned many years before. 

“I was the first [openly trans person] in a leadership role, and in the Pentagon,” Simpson says from her office. “I got my job because I’m the best at it. As far as being trans and open, it has never been an issue for me in this building.” 

Simpson doesn’t see many special issues arising after the ban is lifted in May. She says the change is no different from when black Americans, women, or gays and lesbians were integrated into the military. 

“It’s an ongoing evolution that has always made our military forces stronger. The department and the mili-tary want to be as effective as possible, and the way to achieve that has always been through more diversity,” she says. “Contrary to most beliefs, the military is not about brute force. When ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed, there was not the social upheaval in the military that some people thought was going to happen, and I don’t see much of a difference here. As always, the military will soldier on.”

Slideshow: Meet 7 Trans Soldiers Who Served Our Country

Robin, 40, is a former Air Force officer who left active duty in 2002 and now works as a technical director for the Department of Defense. She began to transition on the job last March. She also has warm things to say about the professional atmosphere at the Pentagon.

“It’s a great place to work. Everybody has been very helpful and nice. There are a few outliers, but that’s society,” she says. 

The lift on the ban, however, may be too broad and does not address many of the particulars that will go along with allowing people to serve openly as transgender. 

 “They’re still not going to cover surgery. It’s questionable if you can even have surgery while in the military,” she says. “And what standards will these people be held to, if they are one gender when they came in and now they are another? How will the military merge male and female standards? Dress, hair—that’s where people continue to struggle.” 

Under current protocol, trans women, for example, would still be held to male standards for hair, dress, and bathroom use. “I have trans friends in the military now, and they struggle with hair stand-ards and bathrooms,” Robin says. “Are all the policies changing in May, or are they just saying ‘It’s OK to be trans now’? They’re officially going to say you cannot get kicked out for being trans and you can get mental health services, but that’s all I’ve seen that they are going to do.”

A stone’s throw from the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., Kimberly Moore has invited me to her birthday party at Freddie’s Beach Bar, which is decorated in Barbies and looks a bit like a restaurant from The Golden Girls if you were on acid. 

Moore is a former marine. She (then he) led a 300-person unit in Iraq—it turned out that five of her soldiers ended up being transgender. 

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There are about 35 current and former military people here, with a stark age divide. Those around Kimberly’s age, middle-aged, are mostly married to women they met before they came out. Many of them dress only on select occasions. Sometimes their wives know, and sometimes they don’t. A few have begun to fully transition. At one table sit the younger generation, in their 20s. They are decidedly more blasé about the whole thing. 

Moore says she began dressing when she was around 8 years old. In the Marine Corps, just out of college, sometimes she would sneak out of the barracks, drop $200 a night on women’s clothes, and then throw them out the next day. 

“My wife hates it,” Moore says. “The fact I’m out here tonight — she wouldn’t even talk to me when I was heading out of the house. She told me as soon as our daughter gets better, we’re headed for a divorce.” The couple has three children. The youngest, 5, is battling leukemia. 

“We went to go get her hair cut, because it was falling out in clumps. And she said, ‘I don’t want to be confused as a boy,’ and I said, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’ ”

Moore’s friend Lisa, an NSA contractor, approaches with news that, six months ago, she began to fully transition.

“I’m chicken,” Moore says. She has a sweet accent carried from her native Texas (her father, who she calls a “Huckabee conservative,” played for the Texas Longhorns). “I can’t make that decision. I’m still balancing that.”

“It’s not a choice,” Lisa says. “That’s what it comes down to.”

“My wife has this deal: ‘If I give you an inch, you will take six or seven miles.’ And she’s right,” Moore says. “So she won’t be accepting of any part of it. She won’t talk to me for three or four or five days after this.”

Moore sees challenges ahead once the ban is lifted. “I think the lower ranks are OK with it. Like when ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed, they were able to assimilate more easily than the higher ranks. But we’ve had women in the military for 60 or 70 years now, and sexual assaults are on the rise. There was compatibility for 60 years, so what’s different now?” she says. 

“The military is really driven by this binary mentality, where you have to be either-or. There’s no place for this opera stage of ambiguity,” Moore adds. 

Yet the military often has been ahead of the rest of society on social issues, such as desegregation. 

“I have found on average the military is more accepting of the people you work with,” Robin says. “Once you’ve worked alongside somebody and put your life in their hands, they do tend to take care of their own in a way you can’t explain to those who’ve never experienced that.”

The language coming out of the Department of Defense is unwavering in its support for a more open, diverse armed forces (“Transgender men and women in uniform have been there with us, even as they often had to serve in silence alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” a July statement from Carter reads. “We have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines—real, patriotic Americans—who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that’s contrary to our value of service and individual merit”). 

Slideshow: Meet 7 Trans Soldiers Who Served Our Country

However, the situation among the rank and file might prove more prickly. Not only are reports of sexual assaults in the military on the rise, but as the Defense Department has moved toward allowing more females to be ground troops, there’s been a backlash of resentment from male soldiers who claim their female counterparts are getting pregnant while on deployment, in order to go home. 

Simone recalls the racism and sexism of her fellow, mostly white, soldiers back when she was stationed in Panama, though it was not even during wartime. The soldiers referred to Panamanians with racial slurs. “They didn’t respect the women,” she says. “They just wanted to have sex with them.” 

Recently, at her job, she was doing intake on a homeless veteran. When she looked at his information, she realized they had served together, in Panama. 

“Usually, you would say something about that. You’d bond with them,” Simone says. “But at the time there were only a couple of women on the base. So what was I going to say? He would have remembered me. I couldn’t bring myself to get into all of that.”

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