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The Military’s Gender Troubles

Gay men and women can now be open in the military. I worked for this moment for more than two decades and acknowledge that I feel relieved at the outcome – literally tens of thousands of people will not need to live in fear anymore. But my sense of accomplishment is tempered by both an underlying ambivalence about the pain that military service extracts from those involved, by the sobering reality of the experience of women in the military and by the continued exclusion of transgender people.

I am anti-war in almost all situations, and have felt so mixed as I’ve worked for military reform over the past several decades. But what kept me pushing for inclusion was the experience and the encounters I had with women and men who serve. They make choices – based on pragmatic realities, including economics, a sense of duty and honor, a desire for an education, a desire to escape some stifling family or community, their moral imperatives and values. And they deserve just and fair treatment in all ways. The commitment we who do not serve must make is to insure that our friends and compatriots are treated with dignity, with respect, and by the same standards of constitutional law that we all expect.

Gay people enter an armed service culture steeped in outdated gender and partriarchal norms, a deeply sexist culture, that harasses and denigrates women, promotes hyper gender conformity, contributes to sex-trafficking around the world. It is a culture whose lived reality – shaped by the repeated traumas of hideous wars – strays far from its stated ideals. A phenomenal impact of LGB inclusion would be if open service helped to transform the sexism of the military. But none of that will happen on its own, and certainly not if the LGBT movement remains as silent and inattentive as it has to issues of gender, gender identity and  the treatment of women in the armed services.

According to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), “up to 1/3 of women in the military experience Military Sexual Trauma (MST)” [rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment]… yet only 8% of perpetrators are… prosecuted…In 2009, the DoD documented 3,230 incidences of military sexual assault, but considering that 80% of cases are not reported, this number severely underestimates the prevalence.”  ( Some 16% of the armed forces are women. Approximately 10% of troops serving overseas are women, but they are denied the ability to fully serve in combat situations, a legalized glass ceiling that prevents women from advancing and being respected as full partners in the armed forces (Stars and Stripes, January 20, 2010, “Politics Likely to Keep Women Out of Combat Units”).

Fairness much less commitment is not present for women in the military. Under the Bush Administration abolished DACOWITS (the Defense Advisory Committee on Women In The Service, the admittedly weak, somewhat maligned but only cross military entity focused on the needs of women in the services). The Obama Administration has revived it. A host of special commissions and panels have been preparing and will be issuing reports, including a forthcoming (in March) report from the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, that document the kinds of issues women in the military face: a culture of indifference and avoidance; bad and outdated policies with respect to reproductive justice; inadequate care and treatment from the VA; no independent, oversight process for sexual assault and harassment complaints; a terrible track record in handling sexist behavior (from Tail Hook scandal to this day). It’s clear that a commitment at the highest level of military leadership is what is lacking.

For transgender people in the military, the road is harder still. The military ban’s removal for gay men and lesbians did not change the policies of the military towards transgender persons. According to a recent AP story published in the Washington Post, “The Transgender American Veterans Association, an advocacy group founded in 2003, estimates there could be as many as 300,000 transgender people among the nation’s 26 million veterans”. (Lisa Leff, “Transgender Vets Want Military Access for Own”, Washington Post, January11, 2011).

A 2008 report by the Palm Center based on a survey of more than 800 transgender veterans detailed how transgender people are harmed not only by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell but by the pervasive military culture which pathologizes and punishes transgender people. (See, Karl Bryant and Kristen Schilt, “Transgender People in the US Military: Summary and Analysis of the 2008 Transgender American Veterans Association Survey,” published by the Palm Center at University of California Santa Barbara and Transgender American Veterans Association, August 2008, available at

Those interested in reducing sexual violence and harassment in the military should reach out to SWAN and support this great organization with your donations. They are a grassroots group, led by women of color who are veterans, and they have a huge agenda.  In addition,  LGBT activists should insist that our national organizations that worked on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell engage with and champion equal treatment for women in the military and work for changes in the military’s policies on transgender people. Years of work lie ahead to transform the military so that it actually reflects the inclusive aspirations of this country.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kate Clinton, SWAN. SWAN said: Urvashi Vaid, former head of Arcus Foundation and Stonewall Book Award winner, blogs about justice, equality, the… […]

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