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Diversity and Military Service: Past Concerns, the Present Situation and What History Tells Us

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Wayne Jones
October 11, 2017
 

The United States military is a formidable power that has defended this nation since its inception. It remains a force to be revered even as America faces complex threats to our democracy. Our military has not earned the respect that it has without having to deal with the same challenges that continue to plague our society such as racism, sexism and homophobia.

military diversityMany individuals have given the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country, including persons whose fitness or qualifications for service was and is questioned because of their race, gender or sexual orientation. However, African Americans, women and members of the LBGT community have served with honor and bravery despite efforts first to keep them from military service, and then to make the process of acceptance and assimilation as arduous as possible.

History indicates Black men fought in the Revolutionary War and have fought in every United States military conflict since. Their service was in spite of being on the receiving end of racial acts of discrimination. It was not until Executive Order 9981 implemented by President Truman that racial discrimination was legally terminated.

The earliest record of a woman in active military service is that of Deborah Sampson. In 1782, she disguised herself as a man to fight in the Centennial Army. After being wounded in battle her true gender was discovered.

Gays and lesbians have served in the military in this country since its founding. According to information from the U.S. Naval Institute, the first service member to be disciplined for homosexuality was Lt. Gotthold Frederick Enslin, who was “drummed out of the Continental Army in 1778, after being found guilty of sodomy.”

The record of United States military aversion to homosexuals is extensive and includes the 1921 Army standard listing “stigmata of degeneration” for such activities as feminine characteristics and sexual perversion or the 1941 Selective Service edit that “homosexual proclivities” being one of many disqualifying conditions for the draft.

The military policy on gays and lesbians remained until 1994 with the implementation of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. This policy banned military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted gay or bisexual service persons or applicants, while precluding openly gay, bisexual or lesbian individuals from military service. The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy stopped with President Obama signing legislation passed by congress on September 20, 2011.

For many years the policy of all branches of the United States military allowed transgendered persons not to be selected for military service for medicals reasons. This ban was lifted by the Obama administration on June 30, 2016. An immediate implication was that otherwise qualified military personnel could no longer be separated, denied reenlistment or deprived of continuation of service just for being transgendered.

However, the complicated matter of transgendered persons serving in the United States military continues. Among many concerns and questions are: What are the costs associated with providing medical care to transgendered service members, during and after their military service, especially with sex reassignment surgery? What will be the policy for a person who stealthily joins the military for the purpose of obtaining medical benefits including sex reassignment surgery, and does this constitute fraud?

This imbroglio was significantly muddled by President Trump’s recent announcement that transgendered persons would no longer be permitted to serve in the military. There was swift reaction from persons and organizations on both sides of this controversial issue.

There have been questions and concerns presented for every group regarding their compatibility for military service. However, are the right questions being asked to provide the data needed to determine a policy that is fair, reasonable, legal and appropriate on issues of transgendered persons and military service? Since the Secretary of Defense has requested a six-month deferment to let that department conduct additional research on the possible ramifications of complying with the Trump administration’s desire policy, we will see if any new issues are presented.

In the end, the current administration might want to consider history. At some point, all African Americans, women and members of the LBGT community were viewed as not being suitable for military service, as there would be problems with unit cohesion, etc. This later proved to be an incorrect assumption. Subsequently, African Americans, women and gay individuals all have served with honor and distinction.

For transgender individuals, the story is the same, as history reveals that Albert Cashier, who served in the Army during the Civil War and who was interred with full military honors in 1915, was in fact biologically a female, who dressed and lived as a man. Cashier was born as Jennie Irene Hodgers. The Washington Post’s Steve Hendrix’s writes Cashier was “one of the many cross-dressers and gender defiers who have served in the U.S. military since the earliest days of its history.”

As public administrators, we do not make policy. We are often asked for our opinion based on our professional education and experience. While each of us has our personal and professional opinion about transgender persons and military service, history may offer some assistance in resolving this issue.


Author: Wayne A. Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Virginia State University. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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