Transgender individuals may now openly join the U.S. military


William Brangham: Now to another policy shift taking effect today, but this one at the federal level.

Starting today, transgender individuals may openly join the U.S. military, this despite stiff opposition from President Trump, who tweeted last July that he wouldn't accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity.

Since then, several federal courts have rejected that position. And the Justice Department said Friday it will allow transgender individuals to serve, pending the results of a Pentagon study that is currently under way.

Back in May of 2016, during the Obama administration and before any of these other developments, we reported on what this shift in military policy could mean for supporters and critics alike.

Tonight, we take a reprise look at that story.

In 2014, Lieutenant Blake Dremann was going to be one of the first women to serve on a U.S. Navy submarine.

Lieutenant Blake Dremann: We got invited to the White House, and this is me with the president and all the first 24 females on a submarine.

William Brangham: But by the time that vessel launched in late 2013, Blake was physically transitioning to the male gender, and giving himself weekly hormone injections.

Lieutenant Blake Dremann: I took my first shot the week before we got under way, and I took them under way with us.

William Brangham: Blake is a transgender man. His sex at birth was female, but he's long identified himself as male.

Lieutenant Blake Dremann: I probably knew when I was like 5, right, that something was amiss. But you grow up in the church, you grow up in Bible college, that type of environment, and you just learn to ignore it.

William Brangham: In 2016, Blake was stationed at the Pentagon. He says most of the other officers treated him like any another colleague.

Lieutenant Blake Dremann: The senior officers have been very receptive about it. I mean, I have talked to all kinds of them for sometimes an hour or an hour-and-a-half at a time just kind of answering questions. And if you ask, I'm very open.

William Brangham: The tide has slowly been turning for transgender service members like Blake. Until last year, if a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine changed their gender identity, Pentagon policy was to give them a medical disqualification and discharge them from service.

This was policy, but it wasn't always strictly enforced. But former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stopped these dismissals, and ordered the Pentagon to draft plans to allow transgender people to serve openly.

But that change came too late for some. As a man, Brynn Tannehill graduated with honors from the Naval Academy in 1997. She went on to serve as a Navy pilot for over a decade.

Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill: I was flying an SH-60B helicopter full of sub hunting gear and surface search radars and infrared cameras. We could carry anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

William Brangham: She served in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. And after leaving the Navy, she joined the Reserves, but she soon realized she couldn't keep flying.

Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill (Ret.): I left the military in 2010, left the Reserves, because I was dealing with gender dysphoria. I was dealing with the fact that I didn't identify with the gender I had been assigned at birth.

William Brangham: Back in 2016, Tannehill was a military consultant. In her free time, she makes her own medieval-style body armor and participates in popular one-on-one mock combat.

Gender dysphoria, according to the current thinking among mental health professionals, is the real deep-seated sense that the gender you were born with isn't really who you are. A survey of over 6,000 transgender Americans found that 20 percent — that's one in five — had served in the military. That's more than twice the percentage of the general population.

Another study, by the UCLA School of Law, estimates that about 15,500 trans people serve in the U.S. armed forces, out of a total force of 1.5 million. The same study found that there are about 130,000 trans veterans, out of 22 million total veterans.

Dr. George Brown: You have to live a double life. You have to live secretly. And there are many problems that arise out of that type of existence.

William Brangham: George Brown is associate chairman for veterans affairs at East Tennessee State University. He spent 15 years as an Air Force psychiatrist. Since the 1980s, Dr. Brown has treated hundreds of transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. And he's developed a theory as to why so many trans men and women serve.

Dr. George Brown: Ninety percent of the people I interviewed would say, you know, when I was 17, 18, 19 years old, I knew there was something different about myself, and I really wanted to run away from this. And I thought, if I joined the military, I could become a real man.

William Brangham: However trans men and women end up in the military, Brynn Tannehill wants them to be treated the same way that all other federal government workers are treated.

Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill (Ret.): The federal work force already has policies in place that allow other federal workers to transition, to change their names, change their gender markers, to use bathrooms, to use locker rooms. All of this has been worked out with every other federal agency.

So the military is really kind of a little bit behind the curve on this one.

William Brangham: She says VA hospitals have been providing hormones and therapy to trans veterans since 2011. But that's not the case for service members on active duty or in the Reserves. Tannehill says, if a woman needs hormone replacement therapy to address menopausal symptoms or after cancer treatment, she can get it through the military health care system, but not women like her.

Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill: If a transgender woman needs that same estrogen in the same doses, she can't get it.

William Brangham: According to a 2015 study in The New England Journal of Medicine by Aaron Belkin of the Palm Center — they're a research and advocacy group that focuses on transgender issues — it would cost the military about $5.6 million to pay for hormones and other transition-related treatments annually. According to the same estimate, about 188 soldiers would transition each year.

While this represents just a sliver of the Pentagon's personnel, and its nearly $600 billion annual budget, for retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson, his concerns about trans service members go beyond just money.

Colonel Gary Anderson (Ret.): I have nothing personally against women in combat, gays in the military, transsexuals in the military, or gay pregnant whales in the military, as long as somebody can show me that there is value added and not value taken away from the military readiness.

William Brangham: Anderson says that letting transgender people and gays serve has damaged morale. He claims it's the lowest it's been in decades. The cause? Changing attitudes about the LGBTQI community.

Colonel Gary Anderson (Ret.): I think progressive fascism is a fair description.

William Brangham: In the past, the Pentagon has said that the impact of letting gays and lesbians serve openly has been — quote — "negligible."

But Anderson also says that transgender service members present logistical challenges.

Colonel Gary Anderson (Ret.): Will there be a requirement for a third bathing and sanitary facility aboard submarines, on fire bases and so forth?

Lieutenant Blake Dremann: We got stalls. We're mature enough to not — you know, you shut the door. Everybody knows. It's not like there's any secret about what's going on when you walk into the bathroom.

William Brangham: According to the Palm Center, 18 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and other NATO allies, have allowed transgender soldiers to serve. And Tannehill says there's no evidence those militaries suffered any problems or setbacks.

Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill: They have dealt with all the same issues that the DOD is looking at, and they dealt with them 15, 16 to 20 years ago, including facilities, including medical care, including nondiscrimination and non — anti-harassment policies.


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