Beyond ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ transgender vets face different discriminations in the armed services
Published Thursday, 08-Nov-2007 in issue 1037
Editor’s note: Autumn Sandeen, the source for this story, requested a male pronoun be used to refer to her during her 20 years of military service.
For two decades, Autumn Violet Sandeen endured the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of the United States Navy. And for 13 years, the bulk of the retired disabled veteran’s military service, she was protected from taunts and barbs by the guise of marriage.
But Sandeen, a biological male, was an effeminate sailor, who dressed in bright colors publicly and cross-dressed in secret.
When Sandeen married her future ex-wife, other sailors teased: If you’re not gay, you must be a “transvestite.” Sandeen laughed along with them, but the turmoil between her sex – her biological body – and her gender – her female identity – warred inside her.
In 2002, one year after retiring from the Navy, Sandeen transitioned from male to female, and, now, is an activist for transgender veterans.
Sandeen says she doesn’t know whether she made an impact during the 20 years she lived as a man in the military, but she’s determined now to create a safe environment for transgender people in the military and for retired or disabled transgender veterans.
“Twenty years I served in the military, and I don’t know if I ever did anything that made a mark, and left a wake,” she says. “I want to leave a wake in the military.”
Although there is growing dissent for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s prohibition against GLBT people serving openly, the transgender community faces different discriminations yet to be addressed: Because, should transgender service members choose to disclose their gender variant, they risk administrative discharges that carry a social stigma and loss of medical benefits or support, to list two.
Very little research has been done on transgender members of the military, but a few vocal researchers scattered throughout the country have compiled what little information there is. Due to a more vocal and larger apparent number of male-to-female military, these researchers have primarily compiled research on male-to-female transgender people, not female to male.
Sandeen, who avoided an investigation that violated DADT by filing a sexual harassment claim, says she considers her veteran identity second only to her identity as a transgender woman. Her sexual harassment case was largely based on gender non-conformity, and the discrimination she faced for her perceived sexual orientation (gay) when her marriage ended. In addition to fighting for transgender vets, she’s an advocate for the GLBT community at large.
“The whole community is defined by gender non-conformity because of individual behaviors,” she said. “It’s as important to me that you have marriage equality, as it is that I have access to health benefits. It’s as important to me that you are allowed to serve openly, as it is that I’m able to go to the VA and be treated like a woman – It’s all one community.”
‘God delivered me from being a transvestite’
At 3 years old, Sandeen tried convincing his mother that one day he’d be a mommy too. His mother explained, “Boys grow up to be daddies; girls grow up to be mommies.” He insisted: One day, he was going to grow up to be a mommy.
He was a late bloomer, still only 5-foot, 2-inches tall when he started high school. When puberty hit, he realized it – this is the wrong body. “I’m in the wrong body,” he told himself.
“When you’re a child everyone’s body is asexual and childlike – everyone’s body looked like mine,” Sandeen says. “At 14, I really did know I was growing into the wrong body.”
So he began cross dressing, locking himself in his bedroom, wearing women’s clothing and staring at himself in the mirror.
When his Pentecostal father found a stash of makeup in his son’s room, he was not quiet about his disgust. “Sick. Sick, sick, sick,” he’d say.
So the young Sandeen did what the conflicted son of any religious father and mother would do: He tried to pray it away.
“Please make me feel like a boy,” he’d pray. “Please take away this desire. Please, please, please,” he prayed.
After a stint in reparative therapy at 18, and a year of trying to numb himself with marijuana, Sandeen ended up working with the Hermosa Beach Outreach Project, a group of religious witnesses who shared their faith-based testimonies with strangers. His story: “God delivered me from being a transvestite.”
Sandeen had always been an effeminate boy. Most assumed he was gay, yet he was a warm, likeable young man, so he wasn’t taunted or harassed – but most were shocked to hear that God hadn’t rescued him from homosexuality. No, he’d tell them, God had, instead, saved him from wanting to be a woman.
“[The] military treatment of trans-identified/non-normatively gendered individuals is dual edged: 1) preventative; do not let trans/intersex/non-normatively identified persons into the military and 2) acute; remove them from the military when they are so identified.”
When his summer work with the Hermosa Beach Outreach Project ended, Sandeen moved to Portland and lived in a home with friends, who identified as Christians. He worked as the shipping and receiving clerk at an automotive repair tool shop until the 1980 recession when he lost his job.
Unemployed, and with no other prospects in sight, he weighed his options, and it hit him: the Navy. He could enlist in the Navy. It seemed like the best option – he’d be paid; he’d have a place to sleep; and the Navy would make him “a man.”
‘Flight into hypermasculinity’
George Brown, a psychiatry professor at East Tennessee State University and a former major in the U.S. Air Force, has heard it a hundred times.
“I tried to do things that make me feel more masculine, like joining the Navy and getting married.”
“I joined the Navy hoping maybe the problem would go away. It did for a while, but it’s still here.”
“I joined the Air Force as a cover. In uniform, my masculinity would not be questioned.”
In his 1988 report, “Transsexuals in the Military: Flight Into Hypermasculinity,” Brown used such quotes from taped interviews with 11 male gender-dysphoric patients who met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III’s criteria for “transsexualism.” Brown, a military psychiatrist at the time, saw the patients over a 3-year period.
In his report, Brown writes: “A striking similarity was noted in the histories of nearly all of the military gender dysphorics: They joined the service, in their words, ‘to become a real man.’”
In the 23 years that Brown has worked with transgender members of the military, the “flight into hypermasculinity” hasn’t changed, he said.
Tarynn M. Witten, who presented a commissioned report for the Paun Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, titled “Gender Identity and the Military: Transgender, Transsexual, and Intersex-Identified Individuals in the Armed Forces,” says transgender people also tend to take risks after they enlist.
Specifically, transgender male to female members of the military “exhibit behavior that attempts to prove you’re not what the world tells you that you are, or what you think you are.”
From racing cars, to shooting guns, to combat, to excelling in academics, male-to-female transgender people attempt to display defining masculine behaviors, Witten says.
Brown has documented stories of transgender members of the military volunteering for dangerous duties or tasks often considered suicide missions – at the height of the Vietnam War, for example, a gender dysphoric man applied for combat helicopter pilot training, despite the high mortality rate for the pilots. Another gender dysphoric man became a Green Beret, engaging in extensive combat in Vietnam and Thailand.
“They’re so uncomfortable with who they are that they’d rather have it beaten out of them or die trying,” Brown said.
‘You’re more of a woman than I am’
His heart raced. He was sweaty, terrified, exhilarated. In 1982, two years after finishing boot camp, Sandeen was stationed in Virginia Beach, Va., and he couldn’t suppress himself any longer. He’d struggled off and on with cross-dressing since his realization at 14 that nature had played a cruel prank, trapping him inside a body he didn’t belong in.
He hadn’t put on women’s clothing for more than two years, since before he started boot camp in San Diego in 1980.
Suddenly, he couldn’t resist. He walked through a mall in the seaside town and stopped into a women’s shoe store. He found a size-12, spiked-heel, ivory-colored strap sandal He knew the clerks knew the sandals were for him.
“They knew full well I was shopping for myself, and I knew full well that if anyone at the mall recognized me, I’d be in a world of hurt,” he said.
He stopped by JCPenney next, and bought a skirt and a blouse, both poly-cotton blends so they wouldn’t wrinkle while he kept them stashed in a gift box at the back of his locker. If, by chance, the clothing was discovered during a routine room inspection, he’d say the clothes were a gift for a sister, a sister he invented.
“It came to a tipping point,” Sandeen said. “I had to do something about my feelings. As terrifying as cross dressing was, I got to feel like me, and if I didn’t do it, I wasn’t being me.”
No one ever discovered his clothes. His secret was safe, and his friends were none the wiser – but there was one person he couldn’t bear to lie to.
He met his future ex-wife in 1983 at a bar in Long Beach. They danced and talked all night. They fell in love fast, and married nearly six months later. He was in love, and he figured if he married her, he’d finally get this desire out of his system – he’d be a husband, a provider, a man.
Also, marriage would protect him from the hostility in the military – as a married man, albeit an effeminate, married man, he would avoid the questions, the glares, the taunts of “faggot,” “fag,” and “fairy.”
He told his wife he was an “ex-transvestite,” emphasis on the “ex-.” The first two years they were married was blissful, but the union soured as time passed. His wife took a traditional male role in the family, and he took a traditional female role. She resented him for his feminine qualities, and when he confessed he was still having urges to dress in women’s clothing, she exploded – she thought it was a fetish, a sexual desire she couldn’t satisfy.
He tried to explain – there was no sexual feeling; he simply felt more connected to himself when he wore women’s clothing. She couldn’t understand, and so he stopped being honest.
In 1985 he started purchasing and wearing women’s clothing and stashing it in the hatch of his 1983 Chevette.
The couple had three children, but their marriage continued to disintegrate. The end was imminent, and he knew it – particularly the day she came into the house from outside and threw his pile of stashed women’s clothing at his feet. He was stunned. She screamed. Two years later, they divorced, and she hurled a final insult at him before she walked away: “You’re more of a woman than I am,” she said.
‘It follows you like a ghost’
While Sandeen’s marriage protected him from a hostile military climate for 13 years, other not- yet-out, male to female transgender members of the military face discrimination for their perceived sexual orientation. Some men don’t hide their effeminate qualities or gender non-conforming behavior as well as Sandeen did.
It’s important to distinguish between sexual orientation and gender non-conformity, Brown and Witten say.
By and large, the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy with regard to gay and lesbian servicemembers doesn’t apply to transgender members of the armed services.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders still includes gender identity disorder, which makes it a psychological illness. In a medical context, homosexuality is not considered a mental disorder. Worldwide, there are a handful of countries that allow transgender people to serve openly, including Britain, Canada, Holland, the Netherlands and Israel.
Says Witten’s study: “On an institutional level, this study finds that the U.S. military has taken the stand that non-traditional gender identities fall under the aegis of disease…”
“[Transgenderism] is a completely different ball of wax,” Brown said. “There’s no medical or psychological association with non-hetero sexual orientation.”
Gay and lesbian servicemembers, on a case-by-case basis, receive honorable discharges if they come out during their military service.
By contrast, and largely on a case-by-case basis, transgender people face an administrative discharge, said Brown, who would prefer transgender servicemembers to receive medical discharges.
Administrative discharges are given to servicemembers who exhibit a behavioral problem or a personality disorders.
The administrative discharge follows veterans long after military service ends – when they apply for a government job, or attempt to access veteran’s benefits, for example, they must present the discharge papers.
“It follows you; it follows you like a ghost,” Brown said. “There’s no negative association with a medical discharge, but there is always a stigma associated with an administrative discharge.”
If a transgender person attempts to enlist and discloses that he or she is transgender, he or she is immediately disqualified from service on the grounds of mental illness, Witten says.
“On an institutional level, this study finds that the U.S. military has taken the stand that non-traditional gender identities fall under the aegis of disease…”
“You’re lumped in with pedophiles and fetishists – so not only are you perceived to be mentally ill, but you’re also looked at as a pervert.”
In her study, Witten writes that the “military treatment of trans-identified/non-normatively gendered individuals is dual edged: 1) preventative; do not let trans/intersex/non-normatively identified persons into the military and 2) acute; remove them from the military when they are so identified.”
‘Is there anything you’d like to tell us about yourself?’
When Sandeen’s marriage ended, he was re-stationed on the U.S.S. Coronado out of North Island in 1996.
His ex-wife’s words resonated more loudly after the split: “You’re more of a woman than I am,” she’d accused.
To some degree, he knew there was truth in what she’d said. He’d always known there was some female component to his gender. Sandeen, whose wife had adopted the task of dressing her husband in neutral tones during their marriage, went back to wearing pink pants and purple shirts, and collecting women’s clothing for a transition he hoped was imminent.
While on the ship, one of Sandeen’s subordinates started talking – he didn’t like Sandeen’s effeminate qualities, qualities he referred to as being “gay.” Sandeen says the 1st class petty officer was “about as homophobic as they come.”
“This really was about homophobia,” Sandeen said. “For 13 years I had the protection of being married, and you’d be surprised how much protection that buys you being in the military. People made comments or asked questions – most assumed my marriage fell apart because I was gay.”
This, Sandeen says, is an important distinction. Her subordinate complained to Sandeen’s executive officer, who brought Sandeen in for questioning. The subordinate’s claims had nothing to do with Sandeen’s quality of leadership – rather, they focused on his gender non-conformity. He was perceived to be gay.
When Sandeen met with his executive officer, the executive officer asked, “Is there anything you’d like to tell us about yourself?” Sandeen immediately filed a sexual harassment claim: By asking indirectly about Sandeen’s perceived sexuality, the executive officer violated DADT, and the subordinate was reprimanded for going through the chain of command to have Sandeen discharged. The executive officer received a written reprimand. Sandeen believes that the case of male-on-male sexual harassment was punished to a lesser degree than it would have been had she been a woman. Sandeen also notes the lack of protection for gender non-conformists, regardless of sexual orientation.
Months after filing the harassment charges, Sandeen retired as planned and began the process of transitioning.
With very little research done on transgender members of the military, Brown and Witten, along with Aaron Belkin at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Palm Center, are anticipating issues transgender servicemembers may face.
Witten’s study is part one of a two-part study commissioned by the Palm Center, which studies sexual minorities in the military. She was asked to review and compile information on demographics and history for part one of the report. Part two will include testimonies of transgender veterans or active-duty servicemembers.
Brown has worked on voice-therapy studies and continues to work with transgender veterans. Both spoke at a forum during a World Professional Association for Transgender Health conference in Chicago in September.
Of the issues transgender veterans face, Brown and Witten said that access to medical benefits after retirement or discharge is one of the most important. There are medical issues unique to the transgender community. Often, transition requires therapy, hormone treatment and can include sexual reassignment surgery – all costly endeavors if the person does not have medical coverage. VAs, as is the case with all federal agencies, cannot provide sexual reassignment surgery, and treatment for transgender patients is limited.
Brown operated a clinic in Johnson City, Tenn. that worked with transgender veterans, but it was closed by federal officials who did not agree that the clinic served a purpose. Brown was cleared of any wrongdoing for serving the transgender patients. A similar clinic in New Orleans was also closed.
A VA-approved facility in Boston is fairly comprehensive in its treatment of transgender veterans, Brown said. The hospital has set standard operating procedures for how to manage veterans that are transgender, but within the VA system, it’s difficult to find allies.
Brown said VA doctors hesitate to treat transgender patients out of fear that it will affect their careers.
“Now people who do want to treat transgender vets are scared of the potential negative impact on their careers or the stigma,” he said.
Witten’s study also anticipates other questions. From medical support during transition, to medical records, hospice care, and partner benefits, there are a range of unanswered questions that the study notes – and no precedent or policy that answers them.
The lack of such requires more research, more education, more advocacy. Witten, Brown and Belkin are doing their part to document cases, release studies and ask questions – and Sandeen, after her retirement in 2002 and subsequent transition, continues to do her part to fight for transgender veterans’ rights.
Sandeen received psychological support and access to hormone therapy through the local VA, but others aren’t so fortunate.
“My primary care physician at the VA has a caseload of 200 patients and three are transgender – that’s 1.5 percent,” she said. “Someone has to speak up.”