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Advocates push for transgender rights in military

Representative Niki Tsongas said the “military is enhanced when it can benefit from the talents of all who have an interest in serving.”
Representative Niki Tsongas said the “military is enhanced when it can benefit from the talents of all who have an interest in serving.”(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Three years ago with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Clinton administration policy that required gay service members to keep their sexual orientation secret while serving in the military ended. But for transgender individuals, little has changed.

Department of Defense regulations do not allow transgender individuals to serve in the military, due to medical standards for military service. But as 18 other countries break down these barriers to service, transgender rights advocates hope that will change.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Washington Post in May that he wanted to learn more about the issue, giving advocates hope that change would come soon. But months later, Pentagon and White House officials say no official review of the policy is underway.

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“Talk is cheap,” said Diane Schroer, a former Special Forces colonel who transitioned from male to female after retiring from the military.

A study by the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law found approximately 15,500 active duty members are transgender and 134,000 veterans are transgender. Schroer said it’s not surprising that the military changed its policy for lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members but did not do so for transgender people. She said it reflects a broader issue in American society: transgender concerns are often overlooked.

“It’s the same as my experience in a number of venues,” she said. “It’s not surprising at all that people don’t have a clear understanding.”

Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman, said transgender individuals are prohibited from serving under a Defense Department instruction that identifies transsexualism as a psychosexual condition. The Pentagon has repeatedly said a change to the policy is impossible because individuals would not be able to access needed treatments in some of the environments they are deployed to.

With Hagel’s announced resignation, transgender rights advocates say the future of the military’s policies are uncertain. Ian Thompson, a legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Hagel’s consideration of a review in the spring was a “positive moment,” but the lack of progress has been disappointing.

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“Since he made that statement, I haven’t seen any actual evidence that a review or progress is underway,” he said. “There’s no reason to further delay this.”

Although advocates say the medical standards could be changed by the Pentagon and White House without intervention from Congress, several representatives, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, have publicly supported a change to the military’s rules. Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, also emerged as an early supporter of such a change.

“The military is enhanced when it can benefit from the talents of all who have an interest in serving,” Tsongas said in a statement to the Globe.

Representative-elect Seth Moulton, a veteran who aims to serve on Armed Services Committee, also said he believes transgender individuals should be allowed to serve openly in the military.

But for active duty members and veterans alike, gender identity can present a string of problems. Schroer was an Airborne Ranger qualified Special Forces officer who received the Defense Superior Service Medal. She retired as a colonel after more than 25 years of service, and soon began transitioning from male to female.

Like many transgender veterans, Schroer has had a “number of frustrations and challenges” when it comes to accessing her benefits, specifically because of her name change. She has had to wait months to get an ID and has had difficulty registering with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Schroer believes barriers to transgender individuals should be broken down in the same way the military has accommodated an increase in female service members. She said the fact that other military allies of the United States have successfully allowed transgender personnel to serve openly exemplifies that this should be a nonissue.

Schroer says little will change until there are more high-profile cases related to this issue. Recently advocates scored a victory when the Army Board for Correction of Military Records granted two transgender veterans name changes on key military documents.

The Palm Center, a think tank focused on gender issues and the military, has released several reports that find the military’s ban to be flawed, including a commission co-chaired by a former US surgeon general.

“Medical regulations requiring the discharge of transgender personnel are inconsistent with how the military regulates all other medical and psychological conditions,” the report found, “and transgender-related conditions appear to be the only gender-related conditions that require discharge irrespective of fitness for duty.”

The report noted that no other gender-related medical conditions require discharge without consideration of fitness for duty. The report also noted that although the psychiatric community no longer identifies gender nonconformity as a mental illness, the military has yet to catch up with these changes.

Still, advocates like Schroer are pessimistic that a change will happen anytime soon, particularly after the Republicans’ sweeping win in the midterm elections and the forces downsizing.

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“The entire discussion should be on the requirements of a job and the capabilities of an individual,” she said. “That should decide why and how they serve.”

Cat Zakrewski can be reached at cat.zakrzewski@globe.com.