If you were around during the 1970s and ’80s, you undoubtedly remember the hit television show “M*A*S*H.” And, I’m sure, you remember the cross-dressing Klinger, who clearly was willing to go to any lengths to get a Section 8 psychiatric discharge from the army. Back in the 1950s, when the Korean War was fought, Section 8 discharges were commonly given if you were guilty of “sexual perversion,” which included, but was not limited to, cross-dressing and transsexualism. Of course, Klinger’s efforts were completely unsuccessful, and he remained at the 4077th for the duration of the show.
Today, Section 8 no longer exists in military parlance. And the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” allows lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicepeople to serve openly in the military. But even today, a person who violates the gender binary in any way faces steep military consequences – because the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (a law which focused specifically on sexual orientation, and which never applied to trans* and gender-nonconforming people in the first place) does nothing to protect them.
Although repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a challenge, allowing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to serve in the military doesn’t fundamentally challenge the gender binary. However, dismantling the policy firewalls that prevent trans* and intersex people from serving would involve shattering the entire institutional structure of the military – a structure that, for centuries, has rested on the foundation of masculine power. Preserving that foundation involves policing any transgressions of the gender binary – and people whose gender identity transgresses the boundary between “male” and “female” are considered to be a medical and/or a psychological aberration of nature (a particularly effective form of social policing).
Consider the following military policies:
- Medical restrictions. According to Army Recruiting Regulation 601-210, people who are intersex are banned from enlisting. The Marine Corps Military Personnel Procurement Manual contains a similar ban against intersex individuals. And researchers at the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara were told by Navy and Air Force recruiters that “being a hermaphrodite was a medical disqualification.” Interestingly, they didn’t use the word intersex – instead, they specifically chose to use the word that many people in the intersex community consider to be highly pathologizing. Furthermore, according to Army Regulation 40-501, transpeople who have undergone sex reassignment surgery, as well as intersex people who have been subjected to gender-normalizing surgery, are banned from the military: “Major abnormalities and defects of the genitalia such as a change of sex….” constitutes a disqualifying medical defect. And Air Force Regulation 160-43 states that “major abnormalities and defects of the genitalia such as change of sex, a history thereof, or complications . . . residual to surgical corrections of these conditions” prohibit a person from serving in that branch.
- Psychiatric restrictions. Army Regulation 40-501 states that “current or history of psychosexual conditions, including but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias, do not” meet the standards for psychological fitness. Even more powerful than that is Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which serves as the foundation of military law. Article 134 prohibits all gender-nonconforming behaviors such as cross-dressing – and it gives the military broad power to discharge service members for any behavior seen as “prejudicial to good order and discipline.”
- Veteran status. The VA doesn’t recognize the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care, nor does it offer sex reassignment surgery. According to a 2007 report commissioned by the Palm Center, which was based on 827 surveys completed by U.S. military veterans and active-service personnel, 97% were unable to transition until after leaving the military; about 1/3 who had used the VA hospital had broached the subject of medical gender transition with the VA staff – and almost all requests were denied; and fully 10% had been denied services completely at the VA because they were transgender.
In a nutshell, what all branches of the military are saying is this:
- If your genitalia is non-normative, you are medically unfit to serve.
- If your gender presentation is non-normative, you are psychologically unfit to serve.
- If, after your active duty is over, you exhibit gender-nonconforming behavior (particularly if it involves a gender transition), don’t expect to be entitled to the full range of military benefits typically afforded to veterans.
If you think about it, the military uses medical and psychiatric diagnosis very effectively in order to keep gender nonconformity out of its ranks. There’s something wrong with you, they say. And as a result, you are unfit to serve.
But there’s a gaping hole in that argument – a hole so obvious it’s easy to miss. That hole is in the very foundation of military law – the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 134 gives military officials sweeping powers to discharge service members for any behavior seen as a threat to “good order and discipline.” This code isn’t saying there’s something wrong with you. Rather, what it’s saying is, Keep quiet. Don’t rock the boat. Behave yourself, and keep good order and discipline.
I often think about how reframing the problem allows us to consider issues from an entirely different perspective. Gender nonconformity isn’t the problem. The problem involves people’s reactions to gender nonconformity. Just like homosexuality isn’t a problem – but homophobia is a huge problem. What if, instead of using medical and psychiatric restrictions to ban gender-nonconforming people from service, the military clamped down hard on transphobic, dehumanizing, oppressive behaviors?
In many ways, repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a good thing. But it wasn’t enough – and frankly, I wish the LGBTQIA community could have stood in strong unifying solidarity, arguing for the repeal of DADT and for the elimination of all gender-oppressive military policies.
This Memorial Day, I reflect on the possibilities that acceptance, unity, and inclusivity offer to us. And I honor those who have served openly, and those who have served (and continue to serve) in silence.