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Chelsea Manning and the Transgender Identity in the Military

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

By Andrew Vaz
July 21, 2017

When the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ (DADT) policy, which discriminated against the LGBT members of the military from serving openly, was repealed in 2011, it allowed for lesbian, bisexual and gay service men and women the freedom and inclusion they had spent decades hoping for. However, it would take another five years for our transgender officers to have the same outcome.  As DADT dealt with sexual orientation, the military did not address gender identity. Just as the majority of conventions in our society, the idea of gender as simply a manmade construct was often ignored. Transgender citizens were often denied eligibility into the armed forces based on medical reasons, largely due the military requiring members to serve as their assigned sex. However, sex is not the same as gender. Based on research, it is believed as of 2014 that there are approximately 15,500 transgender individuals either serving on active duty or in the National Guard or Army Reserve forces within the U.S. Military.

Aside from the controversy this unofficial policy was creating, a challenge was beginning to emerge in the form of a military officer charged with espionage. Chelsea Manning was an intelligence analyst for the United States military. She had access to confidential military documents and was court-martialed to a 35-year prison sentence. At the time, Chelsea was known as Bradley Manning, and she fought against the government as she claimed that adequate medical treatment was not made available to her. Chelsea declared that although she appeared to be a male, she identified as a female. Thus, she filed a lawsuit in 2013.


In 2016, President Obama lifted the ban on Transgender citizens serving openly in the armed forces. The transgender policy was never a statutory bar; that meant ending it required only the direction of the defense secretary and the president. President Obama also took away the authority to discharge transgender individuals from immediate military superiors, making it difficult to release transgender individuals whose gender confusion was negatively affecting servicemen. However, the Trump Administration had reversed course and had decided to continue the ban. This was to affect many prospective soldiers who wish to serve in the military as they will not receive the adequate medical and emotional treatment to serve. However, it doesn’t stop there: transgender cadets set to graduate from the Army and Air Force military academies were told they would not receive commissions and be allowed to serve on active duty.

What is happening is a mistake; the progress that was made to allow all members of the LGBT community to serve and protect our nation with pride is being eliminated by special interests with xenophobic intentions.  President Trump has not been vocal on this issue and it has long been suspected the administration’s true intentions was to reverse course on the Obama-era policy. In addition, many inside the Pentagon have questioned the practicality of expending such effort to accommodate a comparatively small demographic. Nonetheless, the Pentagon was already making plans to prepare for the inclusion of transgender applicants into the military by July 1.

The Trump Administration and the military must step up their efforts to be more inclusive to our transgender community. Congress must allocate more funding for upgrades to bathroom facilities and locker rooms. This also will extend to Department of Defense schools as transgender students will require gender neutral restrooms.

We cannot eliminate the progress already made as this leaves a terrible impression on our servicemen and women. Many within the military have already undergone gender reassignment surgery provided by the Obama Administration. The RAND Corporation estimated that 140 people in the military already want to chemically alter their gender, plus an additional 130 want “sex-change” operations. This follows 18 nations in total, including England, Australia, Canada and Israel, that allow transgender people to serve openly in their militaries and with access to medical care.

All of the biggest critics of the policy to allow transgender citizens to serve openly in the military have concluded this policy will be detrimental to troop preparation and readiness. I would argue that attrition and retention is a bigger problem as more members of the military are discharged dishonorably for improper conduct — not because of reassignment surgery. The opponents of this policy are clearly drenched in xenophobia and must re-evaluate their positions as the military is in need of proficient service members regardless of what their gender identity may be.

Author: Andrew R Vaz, M.Sc., M.P.A. is a doctoral student in the public policy and administration program at Walden University. He is a graduate of the Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration double master’s program at Florida International University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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