Honoring Trans* Soldiers This Memorial Day

It was only about three months ago that the Pentagon announced protections for transgender service members. Prior to March, a transgender soldier in the Army could be dismissed from service by a mid-level officer; now, those officers have to take their concerns to the Army’s top civilian for personnel matters and explain the dismissal. This is the same strategy used in the process of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – it has a chilling effect, because forcing officers to answer to a high-ranking civilian makes them accountable for bias, and dismissing a service member based on gender identity alone could hurt the officer’s career. In February, the Army also – finally – approved hormone treatments for Chelsea Manning, the now-famous transgender Army soldier convicted for revealing information to Wikileaks and detained at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas.

These are good steps forward, but only preliminary steps forward, with a lot more to be done. Sergeant Shane Ortega is the first openly transgender member of the U.S. Army, but reports that he’s still referred to as female in the military’s computer system, and because of this administrative snag is forced to wear women’s dress blues. Still, it signals a sea change in military policy. In the past, trans* soldiers have been dismissed or blocked from service for a variety of reasons, mainly that being transgender constitutes a mental disorder that renders an individual unfit to serve, but also that the requirement of hormone treatments would keep a soldier from being able to serve in hardship positions.

There’s plenty to be said to the contrary. Characterizing a transgender identity in and of itself as a mental disorder is inaccurate, inasmuch as the American Psychiatric Association’s industry-standard diagnostic manual, the DSM-V, notes that gender dysphoria is constituted by distress caused by a conflict between one’s gender identification and the gender identity one was assigned at birth, but not by identifying as transgender. And many advocates point out that other medical conditions that require frequent medication, like diabetes, are not obstacles to serving in hardship positions.

And, frankly, there’s the fact that regardless of what the Army believes about the demographic makeup of its ranks, there are 134,300 retired and veteran transgender soldiers living in the world and 15,500 who are on active duty, according to the Williams Institute. Those soldiers served or are serving without notice, without their gender identities interfering with their ability to serve, but also without being afforded the basic privilege of living as the people they are without risking their jobs. In other words, they’re serving, but they’re not being served.

It bears noting that trans* individuals serving in armies or fighting in wars is far from a recent development. The first most famous transgender American, for example, was Christine Jorgensen, who media outlets couldn’t help but stress, after her 1949 gender reassignment surgery, was an “ex-GI.” The moment in which Jorgensen came into the spotlight defined not only the way that her story was told, but in many ways defined the American dialogue about gender identity leading up to today, as Susan Stryker explains:

“If a macho archetype such as ‘the soldier’ could be transformed into a ‘blond bombshell,’ what did that mean for the average man? […] With millions of women who had worked outside the home during the war being steered back toward feminine domesticity, and millions of demobilized military men trying to fit themselves back into the civilian social order, the question of what made a man a man, or a woman a woman, and what their respective roles in life should be, were very much up for debate.”

But that’s just 1949. Historians of the transgender community define the community broadly when looking further back in history, mainly because the language we have for the transgender community today didn’t exist, historically. But Leslie Feinberg, for example, suggests that going as far back as the ancient Greeks, androgynous warriors have existed, in this case in the form of the Amazons, who removed their right breasts and who Pliny referred to as “the race of the Androgynae, who combine the two sexes… Aristotle adds that in all of them the right breast is that of a man, the left breast that of a woman.” Feinberg also explains that the Amazons weren’t the only non-binary warriors in the ancient Mediterranean:

“The Greeks were well aware of the transsexual priestesses among the Scythians, who were trading partners and competitors in the Black Sea. And even in legends, the Amazon leaders were paired in battles with Greek male warriors such as Achilles, Theseus, and Heracles – all of whom were reported in mythology as having cross-dressed at one time.”

Then there’s Joan of Arc, who was detained by the Inquisition specifically for wearing men’s clothing and forced to sign a document she didn’t understand that said that she would cease to do so. She was sentenced to death when she reneged the very next day, saying that she had resumed wearing men’s clothes “of her own will. And that nobody had forced her to do so. And that she preferred man’s dress to woman’s.” During her execution, once her executioners were sure that she was dead, the fire was extinguished and her naked, burned body was retrieved in order to show the public that she was a “real” woman, in a harrowing echo of the language transphobic individuals use to talk about trans* individuals today.

In the 1600s, there was a Spanish soldier born as Catalina de Erauso who escaped a convent and lived what she described as a fantastically romantic life as Alonso Díaz Ramirez de Guzmán, a conquistador with a penchant for duels and seducing other people’s girlfriends. Erauso was eventually arrested (having to do with dueling), nearly hanged, rescued from hanging, found out, and given explicit permission by the Pope to continue dressing as a man (Feinberg notes that it’s worth pointing out that Joan of Arc was killed for the same crime, but that Erauso had fought on the side of colonialism). In the 1700s, there was Angélique Brulon, who served in Napoleon’s army dressed as a man, fought in seven campaigns, became well-decorated, “came out” during her service, and was embraced for her heroism.

Then there’s the matter of the Civil War – around 400 soldiers who fought during the war were found out to be biologically female. They enlisted for various reasons, including devotion to the causes of both the North and the South, wanting an adventure, a desire to enlist with their husbands, to leave home, or to earn money. The story goes that they were able to enlist because physical exams weren’t particularly rigorous, and teenaged men were enlisting, so they wouldn’t be the only soldiers who didn’t have facial hair. They were consistently described as being aloof, no doubt because declining to be social helped them keep their secret. One such soldier, Franklin Thompson, born Sarah Emma Edmondson, served for several years before contracting malaria and deserting in order to avoid a medical examination. She resumed her life as a woman and was later pardoned and admitted into the Grand Army of the Republic. Another, Albert Cashier, served for three years without notice and continued to live under his assumed identity until he was admitted to a psychiatric facility in his late years and forced to wear skirts, causing him to trip, break a hip, and remain bedridden for the rest of his life.

It should be obvious, at this point, that trans* people are everywhere, doing all sorts of jobs and excelling at them, and that that has been the case as long as humans have existed. The mainstream reaction to that reality, especially since we gained the words to talk about transgender and non-binary people as such, has been to harass and ignore trans* people in hopes that it will convince or force them to conform.

But if the history of trans* soldiers tells us anything, it’s that human beings are too self-possessed and tenacious for that. We will fight for our causes no matter what it takes – if that means that we’re cis women who cross gender in order to fight for our country, if that means that we’re trans men who desert rather than be found out, if that means we’re nineteen-year-old French war heroes who choose to die rather than be denied our way of life, or if that means that we’re current U.S. service members who are just not saying anything at all about who our fullest and most content selves are so that we can keep our jobs and keep doing what we believe is right.

Fighting in a military is psychologically difficult enough on its own. Cis service members don’t have to additionally carry the burden of silence in order to get through that experience. Our trans* service members are already protecting our country, right now, as you read this, and as we go about every day of our lives. Why not afford them the basic dignity to serve without that burden?


[Image via Wikipedia]


[USA Today]

[Washington Post]

[American Psychological Association]

[Williams Institute]

[Women of Action Network]


[Smithsonian Magazine]

[Civil War Trust]

[New York Times]

[Susan Stryker, Transgender History]

[Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors]

Send me a line at [email protected] and follow me on Facebook.