Does “don’t ask, don’t tell” impact transgender service members?


Yes, it does.

That was one of the findings from a unique and timely survey conducted by the Transgender American Veteran's Association [TAVA] and analyzed in August by Palm Center researchers. In what has been described as "one of the largest surveys of the transgender community in general that has ever been done," researchers found that transgender service members and veterans, like many transgender people in the U.S., face a variety of forms of discrimination based on their transgender status.

The most important findings of the survey were those detailing the discrimination faced by transgender veterans, especially when seeking healthcare with the Veterans Administration. For a detailed white paper on the findings, click here.

In addition, the survey contained findings that will capture the attention of anyone interested understanding the impact of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy [DADT]. Among those transgender veterans who served under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, 1 in 5 were questioned by an officer about their sexual orientation, a violation of the military's DADT policy. Nearly two thirds reported there were suspicions about their sexual identity. The survey showed that pre-transition transmen were twice as likely pre-transition transwomen to report suspicions about their sexual identity.

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy is often referred to as "the ban on gays in the military," because the rationale for the law is the premise that "the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk." Identity itself, therefore, is criminalized as though identity and conduct are the same. Further, since the rationale regulates not just acts or conduct but the "propensity to commit an act," the law could be applied to anyone who might commit a homosexual act, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. (There is one exception to this, referred to as "Queen for a Day" that allows for the retention of service members who have engaged in homosexual acts, but can show their behavior was the exception not the rule, and therefore that they are straight.) These slippages in the rationale between acts and identity mean that the ban can impact more than just servicemembers who identify as "gay, lesbian, or bisexual," but can also impact or possibly be applied to heterosexuals, transgender servicemembers, and anyone who does not conform to gender norms and, therefore, could come under suspicion of being gay or be perceived as "demonstrating a propensity." Since homophobia is often structured around the perception that gender non-conformity is a sign of sexual orientation, gender non-conforming people, regardless of sexual orientation, could have their gender identity read as sign of "a homosexual propensity," making them vulnerable to discharge or at least threats of discharge.

The TAVA data should be paid attention to by anyone interested in understanding gender-based discrimination or violence in the military. The survey points to the ways that homophobia and transphobia overlap in the military and the Veterans Administration. The survey adds to the growing evidence that the impact of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy varies by gender and corroborates recent pentagon data that show women are disproportionately affected by the ban on openly gay service, by showing that pre-transition transmen (who served in the military as women) were twice as likely pre-transition transwomen to report being suspected of being gay and three times more likely to have been asked by a superior about their sexual orientation -- in direct violation of "don't ask, don't tell."

More research is needed both on the experiences of transgender people in the U.S. (NCTE and the Task Force recently announced a national survey on discrimination against transgender people) and more research is needed to understand the full impact of DADT on all members of the military. Ironically, the existence of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy itself makes that almost impossible.

Dr. Karl Bryant (SUNY, New Paltz) and Dr. Kristen Schilt (U of Chicago) authors of the Palm Center whitepaper will be presenting their findings based on the TAVA data at the Pacific Sociological Association meetings in San Diego, CA in April 2009. Title: "Experiences of Discrimination among Transgender People in the U.S. Military: An Analysis of the 2008 Transgender American Veterans Association Survey."

For more information on the survey designed and administered by the Transgender American Veterans Association [TAVA] from Dec 2007 -May 2008, see the TAVA survey results website.

Jeanne Scheper, Reseach Director, Palm Center


I keep hearing how the

I keep hearing how the military violates gays rights, well coming from a soldier I'm here to tell you that the military is in it's self is a private organization, and is charged with defending this great nation. I as so many of my brother's and sister's stand by our leadership on open ban of gays in our military. And yes I said "our" military because the fact of the matter is if you have not served this fine country then you have no say in how we defend it.
Keep the ban ! And GOD bless America!!!!

I think it definitely does,

I think it definitely does, though I am wondering whether the repeal of DADT will also help trans people. As far as I understand it, if things have not changed that much since 2003, transsexuality is still considered a personality disorder and therefore something that someone can be disqualified from serving for. I got out under the DADT policy rather than by saying I was trans, because I wanted to avoid something potentially ugly.


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