Honoring All Veterans: Focus on Black Transgender Veterans & Servicemembers
By Isaiah R. Wilson
Director of External Affairs, National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC)
On this Veterans Day, our nation once again pauses to honor those who have served in our military and those currently serving. As the proud son and grandson of former Marines, I am forever inspired by the history and resiliency of Black veterans and servicemembers. For many Black veterans, including my family, the service was a pathway for both professional development and a means to lift their families out of poverty. These American heroes not only served honorably in defense of country, but they confronted and continue to overcome societal ills like racism and bias. This is especially true for Black transgender servicemembers who currently face a hostile Trump Administration that has publicly committed to banning them from openly serving. This in spite of the fact that many U.S. allies already allow open service for transgender people.
At the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, biseuxal, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, we wholeheartedly reject this proposed ban on transgender service, which was partially blocked last month by a federal district court. We also are working to advance public policies that can help both the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) become more inclusive and equitable for LGBTQ/SGL servicemembers and veterans. As we reflect on the service of our veteran population, let’s consider the real life impact of this potential transgender military ban and how current policies from the VA make life especially hard for our transgender veterans.
So what do we know about transgender veterans and servicemembers?
There are an estimated 134,000 transgender veterans (Williams Institute, 2014) and around 5,000-6,000 transgender individuals actively serving (Rand Corporation, 2016). In addition, we know that individuals assigned female at birth are nearly three times more likely to serve than cisgender women, and those assigned male at birth are 1.6 times more likely to serve than cisgender men (Williams Institute, 2014). This limited data does not estimate how many of these transgender servicemembers are African American, but studying the history of Black servicemembers in the military, I am confident current efforts to prevent transgender servicemembers from serving will disproportionately impact Black transgender people.
In a report released in September by NBJC, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Black Transmen Inc. and Black Transwomen Inc., the Black respondents of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (the largest survey of transgender identified people ever in our nation) showed that 15% of Black respondents have served in the military, including respondents who were currently serving in the military on active duty (1%) and those who were currently on active duty for training in the Reserves or National Guard (1%). More specifically, 13% of these Black respondents were veterans as compared to only 8% in the U.S. population overall.
This data underscores the fact that a substantial amount of Black transgender people have served and are currently serving in the military. With the Trump Administration actively working to pollute our military with discrimination, the opportunities that military service presents to many Black transgender people to empower themselves and their families is in jeopardy.
What is the so-called transgender military ban and what is the latest on this proposed policy by the Trump Administration?
This past summer, President Trump declared via Twitter that transgender servicemembers would not be allowed to serve in the military, breaking with a policy of open service that had been implemented under the Obama Administration. This tweet was followed by a White House memo in late August that outlined a new policy that would bar transgender people from serving openly, receive medical treatment like gender corrective surgery and finally stop any transgender individual from being able to join the service. The Administration gave itself until March of 2018 to finalize the policy.
In late October, a federal judge in the DC District Court blocked part of this policy change stating that it “does not appear to be supported by facts” and “there is absolutely no support for the claim that the ongoing service of transgender people would have any negative effect on the military.” The judge’s preliminary injunction is a huge barrier for the Trump Administration which now must go back to court in order for them to continue to implement the policy change by March. However, because none of the plaintiffs in this particular case are requesting access to transition-related healthcare, the judge’s decision did not lift the bar on healthcare and medical treatment for transgender servicemembers which is a part of the new policy by the Administration.
Until the courts render a final decision on the injunction of the federal court, the official policy of the U.S. will essentially revert back to the Obama-era policy, which called for open service for transgender servicemembers. However, many transgender servicemembers in need of transition related health care will still have to wait in limbo until the final policy comes to light post a likely Supreme Court decision.
So what does this mean for Black transgender veterans and servicemembers?
Transgender servicemembers who need transition related healthcare may be barred from receiving that health care until an official policy is established by the Administration and affirmed by the courts as being constitutional. We know from the Rand Corp study that transition health care cost would be negligible on the military budget.
Transgender veterans who receive medical treatment from the VA still are not able to receive care related to their transition. Currently, the VA provides gender transition counseling, evaluations for hormone therapy and evaluations for gender transition surgeries. However, the VA does not pay or provide any of transition-related medical procedures leaving a huge hole in the ability of our government to provide comprehensive and culturally competent health care for transgender veterans.
While the transgender military ban is specific to active duty servicemembers and prospective servicemembers, the DoD and VA have much work left ahead to ensure that our LGBTQ/SGL servicemembers and veterans enter inclusive environments. Our military leaders must support the thousands of Black transgender servicemembers who have volunteered to serve our country with their lives each day. Leaders across the veteran community must also ensure that Black transgender veterans are aware and taking advantage of the many benefits they receive from their service including education, housing and disability benefits. In addition, DoD and VA should do all they can to ensure our transgender servicemembers and veterans are able to serve and access benefits for their service free of discrimination.
NBJC has joined the chorus of civil rights organizations advocating for the passage of bipartisan pieces of legislation introduced in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate (HR 4041 and S 1820). These bills would provide for the retention and service of transgender servicemembers, and if passed, could be a more certain and immediate solution to the issue than an eventual court decision.
As we lift up the courageous and selfless service of our American heroes on Veterans Day, we must be mindful that transgender servicemembers, veterans and prospective servicemembers are under attack by the current administration. These veterans and servicemembers come from all backgrounds. However, like many Black veterans, the military has been a soruce for positive life-changing opportunities that too many transgender people never receive in our world. Instead of targeting a population during a time of war, this administration should be building on the progress we have made since the repeal of the discriminatory policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, which banned gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers from openly serving.
For Black America, the potential transgender military ban should be personal as we know that the military has lifted so many of our families and created pathways of mobility. With Black communities disproportionately impacted by unemployment, homelessness, and wage gaps, opening service to transgender people will only be a win for Black America, collectively. When we bar these members of our families and communities from open service, we are hurting ourselves. Any chance for a Black person to have a job, a livable wage, housing, educational opportunities and to give back to their country via service in the military is a victory for our nation and especially for the entire Black community. This is why Black transgender servicemembers and veterans matter on this Veterans Day, and as a civil rights community, we should be doing all we can to stop the implementation of this proposed policy within our military. As a community, Black people and families should be unequivocal that this potential ban on transgender service is the wrong path for our nation. May this be our call to action on this Veterans Day and beyond.
Isaiah Wilson is the Director of External Affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), where he is focused on the public policy implications of critical issues for Black LGBTQ and same gender loving (SGL) people. Isaiah leads the organization’s efforts to advocate for sound policy solutions that empower Black LGBTQ/SGL people in the United States. His ultimate role as the director of external affairs is to authentically integrate Black LGBTQ/SGL people’s challenges into the greater dialogue within African American communities in order to spur a more inclusive racial justice movement.