This information is excerpted from Freedom to Serve: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Military Service. To download the full guide, click here.
By repealing DADT, the country and the military have taken a significant step toward equality for all who want to serve their country in uniform. But there are other discriminatory policies in the military that the repeal of DADT does not change, including the medical regulatory ban in place for aspiring or current service members who identify as transgender.
The term “transgender” is a broad umbrella under which several different groups of individuals may identify, including those seeking partial or full physical alteration of their birth sex. For the purposes of this guide, we will discuss these groups as they relate to military rules and regulations.
Issues for transgender individuals may come up at the time of enlistment, appointment or commissioning into the armed forces, or may arise for personnel already serving in the military. The military has a binary view of gender; therefore, the rules and regulations, including the language the military uses, reflect this view. Any transgender individual who has questions about military service, is being harassed, or is under investigation based on his or her gender identity or expression should contact SLDN for assistance.
Enlistment / Appointment / Commissioning
To join the military, potential service members are required to undergo a physical examination as part of the induction process. During this examination, the military may disqualify a candidate if the potential service member has had any type of genital surgery. A history of genital surgery may result in a disqualification for “major abnormalities and defects of the genitalia.”
Furthermore, even if the candidate has not had surgery but openly identifies as transgender, the military considers this to be a disqualifying psychiatric condition, labeling “transsexualism” and “transvestism” as “psychosexual conditions.” An individual may request a medical waiver of any disqualifying condition from the Department of Defense. The availability of medical waivers varies among the service branches. SLDN is not aware of a waiver ever being granted to a transgender service member.
Currently Serving Members
Transgender service members who are thinking about becoming more public or who begin to transition while in the military should be aware of the difficulties in doing so. The military medical system does not recognize the World Professional Association for Transgender Health's Standards of Care for Gender Identity Disorders and will not provide transition-related medical care. As stated above, being transgender is considered a medically disqualifying condition, and sex reassignment surgery and/or other medical procedures will become known by the military during the service member’s regularly scheduled physical exam. Because the military classifies sex reassignment surgery under “major abnormalities and defects of the genitalia,” once this condition is known by the military, the service member will likely be discharged. Furthermore, even if the candidate has not had surgery but identifies as transgender, the military considers this to be a disqualifying psychiatric condition, labeling “transsexualism” and “transvestism” as “psychosexual conditions.”
For those members who seek treatment from civilian providers, be aware that each service has regulations governing military members seeking outside health care which may include reporting requirements. Failure to abide by these regulations could place a member at risk for criminal (UCMJ) action.
The military strictly regulates uniform and grooming standards by gender. Wearing clothing the military does not consider gender-appropriate is considered “cross-dressing” by the military and is generally addressed in regulations governing conduct. Each service has different regulations, and “cross-dressing” is handled differently depending on the circumstance, service component and the service member’s status as enlisted or officer, and active or reserve. As a practical matter, any “cross-dressing” or perceived “cross-dressing,” even in the context of following medical protocol in advance of full transition, will most likely be considered by the military to be a violation of regulations and result in discipline or criminal prosecution.
Gender non-conforming service members are often perceived as being lesbian or gay by others in the military. These service members are often subjected to anti-gay harassment. In the event of such harassment, service members should contact SLDN for assistance.
Members of the IRR
More and more inactive reserve military members are being recalled to active duty. Transgender persons in the inactive reserve who are in the process of transitioning may be confronted with the need to halt this process if they are recalled. Recall to active duty places them directly under the regulatory requirements discussed above. Therefore, these service members may need to consider ceasing or interrupting their transition while they complete their active service requirement. Alternatively, transitioning or post-transitioning reservists may be medically disqualified for continued service once they are called back to active duty and medically examined.
Tips for Serving in the Closet
Despite the military’s rules that relate to service by transgender individuals, SLDN has heard of a number of cases of active-duty service members who identify as transgender. Though remaining in the closet is necessary for avoiding discharge, nothing stops a service member from self-identifying as transgender. Some transgender service members have sought counseling and even hormone therapy from civilian medical providers without reporting these developments to the military, though regulation strictly bans this practice.
Some transgender personnel have successfully come out to fellow service members. However, as under DADT even colleagues and friends that service members considered trustworthy have led — directly or indirectly — to their discharge.
SLDN recommends that transgender service members planning to out themselves to peers or to their command contact our legal hotline first to discuss legal options and the implications of doing so.
Discharges and Aftermath
Discharges for “sexual gender and identity disorders” are classified as administrative rather than medical, despite the inclusion of this category under medical regulation. As a result, transgender service members may be faced with lack of access to VA health facilities. “Sexual gender and identity disorders” do not qualify for disability under DoD regulations.
Transgender service members may be discharged for reasons other than simply being medically diagnosed as transgender. For example, some who may be disqualified for a medical issue unrelated to Gender Identity Disorder may undergo medical instead of administrative discharge. Additionally, discharges based on violations of conduct regulations (UCMJ infractions) may carry more punitive results.
Most of SLDN’s transgender clients have been discharged honorably, though other than honorable or dishonorable discharges may be possible depending on the case (e.g., violations of conduct regulations). Discharged veterans seeking to upgrade their discharge characterization or to change their narrative reason for discharge may contact SLDN for assistance.
The DD-214 form issued to each service member upon discharge carries no gender marker, though it does list legal name. Some transgender veterans have successfully amended this name listing with a DD-215 form, which lists changes to the DD-214.
By regulation, the VA is not permitted to perform or pay for sex reassignment surgery. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a directive on 10 June 2011 articulating a policy of fair and equal treatment for transgender veterans. It also confirms coverage for medically necessary healthcare for transgender veterans, such as sex-specific care like mammograms and pap smears, and transition-related care like hormones and mental health services.
FTM International serves the Female-to-Male community by providing support meetings for FTMs and their families in cities around the world.
National Center for Transgender Equality
The National Center for Transgender Equality is a national social justice organization devoted to ending discrimination and violence against transgender people through education and advocacy on national issues of importance to transgender people.
Transgendered American Veterans Association (TAVA)
TAVA was formed to address the growing concerns of fair and equal treatment of transgender veterans and active duty service members.
Transgender Law Center (TLC)
The Transgender Law Center is a California-based civil rights organization advocating for transgender communities. TLC utilizes direct legal services, public policy advocacy, and educational opportunities to advance the rights and safety of diverse transgender communities.
Transgender Law & Policy Institute (TLPI)
The TLPI brings experts and advocates together to work on law and policy initiatives designed to advance transgender equality.
Have a question? Contact SLDN by clicking here.