A six-month study on transgender service members in all branches of the military is closing soon, hopefully leading to a lift on a decades-long ban.
It was in July that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called the military’s transgender policies “outdated” and “causing uncertainty.”
“At a time when our troops have learned from experience that the most important qualification for service members should be whether they're able and willing to do their job, our officers and enlisted personnel are faced with certain rules that tell them the opposite,” he said in a statement. “Our military's future strength depends on it.”
Carter called for a six-month investigation into the “policy and readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly” as well as appointing Under Secretary Brad Carson to review any pending transgender discharges.
“That statement was powerful,” said Gene Silvestri, veterans affairs coordinator at the American Military Partner Association. “But, it doesn’t change the current policy right now. If you are transgender and you are serving in the military, you definitely run the risk of being discharged.”
Silvestri served in the U.S. Army for a year before a medical discharge in 2003 after a work-related accident. He is also transgender.
“Any time you see a news article now that’s being run about anybody who’s serving and they’re openly identifying as trans, I hope the public understands that they are taking a risk in exposing themselves out there,” he said. “It’s important to know there’s risk even in that.”
Silvestri said the reasoning by the Department of Defense to not have transgender service members vary, but include berthing conditions on a ship, whether the Veteran's Administration should pay for transition surgeries, how to administer hormones in the field, and more.
The Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA, estimates there are about 15,000 transgender service members today. In light of the movement in the Department of Defense, groups have called for a moratorium on discharges.
The institute also estimates there are more than 134,000 transgender veterans. It’s unclear exactly how many service members have been discharged because they are transgender.
“When it comes down to it, when you strip all the uniforms off, we’re all people underneath,” Silvestri said. “Transgender people have always served in the military. It’s just like LGB. It’s just unfortunate that that community or that part of the larger military had to be silent, they had to exist within the shadows.”
While it’s still against policy for transgender people to serve in the military, with Carter’s directive as well as other policy changes, discharging them is harder and handled by higher-ranking officials.
In March, the Army required that any decisions on discharging transgender troops be made by the assistant secretary of the Army for personnel, rather than mid-level officers. Later, in June, the Air Force changed its policies so that transgender discharges be sent up the ranks to the secretary of the Air Force Personnel Council and the Air Force Review Boards Agency.
In a statement, the Air Force said, “Identification as transgender, absent a record of poor duty performance, misconduct, or a medically disqualifying condition, is not a basis for involuntary separation.”
When Silvestri was in the Army, he hadn’t identified himself as transgender yet, but rather, a lesbian woman. Although he never talked about it with others, the way he dressed, his demeanor, short hair, and “masculine energy” was “off putting” to some, he said.
While the Veterans Administration as a whole has been under fire for mishandling veteran healthcare, leading in some cases to death, Silvestri experienced uneducated employees and miscommunication between offices when handling his paperwork as a transgender person. While the VA has had a transgender directive since 2013 -- calling for “respectful delivery of healthcare to transgender and intersex Veterans” -- many employees are not aware of it or are not educated in how to deal with transgender patients.
“Inconsistency is a great word when you talk about the VA,” he said. “I still have veterans calling me about falling through the cracks.”