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How the Military Became the Country’s Largest Employer of Transgender Americans

By Ben Christopher

Why did Lily Kidd join the Marines?

Ask her about it now and she offers a variety of answers. She needed to escape an unaccepting family. She wanted to experience life outside of Alabama. She was eager for a physical challenge (“I don’t go half in on anything,” she says).

But she also joined the United States Marine Corps because, as a twenty-year-old living in the Deep South with a fiancé, Lily Kidd was still presenting herself to the world as a man.

“When you’re growing up as a boy, feminine traits are pushed away,” explains Kidd, a transgender woman who is now 28 and lives in San Diego. “The Marine Corps—that’s the ultimate way to say, ‘hey, you know what, I’ve got nothing to do with that stuff.’”

Last June, the Department of Defense announced that transgender men and women could no longer be discharged from the military on the basis of their gender identity. While the reform arrived too late for Kidd, who was kicked out of the Marines in 2014 after coming out as trans in her seventh year of service, the shift in policy has brought new public attention to the singular challenges (and for many, the very existence) of transgender service members.

But Kidd’s experience is not unique, nor even particularly rare. While media coverage of high profile trans service members like Chelsea Manning and Kristin Beck often presents the stories of transgender troops as novel—a singular juxtaposition of gender nonconformity within institutions that prize conformity above all else—they are anything but.

In fact, the available evidence suggests that transgender Americans serve at rates well above the national average. Though the data is sparse, studies estimate that trans men and women are anywhere from two- to five-times more likely to join the military as their cisgender (nontrans) counterparts. For all its perceived conservatism and raging heteronormativity, the United States Armed Forces is almost certainly the largest employer of transgender people in this country.

Trans service members and veterans offer a variety of explanations for this disparity. For some, the military uniform functions as gender camouflage—a way to forestall uncomfortable questions from friends, family, or spouses. For others, joining the armed forces offers financial security and community to a group that is disproportionately denied both. For Lily Kidd, both aspects motivated her decision to serve.

As both a hiding place and a safety net, the military has become an unlikely refuge for thousands of transgender Americans.

Rough Estimates 

You can tell a lot about a society based on the data it collects.

No branch of the United States military gathers statistics about its transgender service members because, up until June of this year, they did not officially exist.

Likewise, estimates of the American transgender population are notoriously unreliable. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t ask about transgender identity, though as Mona Chalabi writes at FiveThirtyEight, the results probably wouldn’t be reliable if they did. “Transgender” has no universally agreed upon definition, and many respondents might be reluctant to honestly answer a question about it from a federal agency. The surveys that do exist tend to focus on particular geographic areas or only target the LGBT population.

Still, what rough estimates there are suggest that transgender people are overrepresented in the military. Perhaps dramatically so.

The most prominent of these estimates comes from the Williams Institute, an LGBT-focused think tank based out of UCLA. In a report from 2014, authors Gary Gates and Jody Herman estimate that approximately 15,500 transgender men and women are serving and that an additional 134,300 trans Americans are veterans. Given a national population of 700,000 (another rough estimate), this suggests that over 1-in-5 (or 21.4%) of all openly transgender Americans are in the military or have served at one point.

Compare this to the average adult American service rate of 10.4%. Transgender Americans, in other words, are estimated to be twice as likely to join the military.

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“Assigned Male at Birth” refers to trans women along with all gender nonconforming people whose assigned gender at birth was male. Data source: Williams Institute. Chart: Priceonomics

According to the Gates and Herman, the disparity is true of both transgender men and women. Trans people assigned female at birth were estimated to be nearly three times as likely to serve as the average adult woman, while trans people assigned male at birth were 1.6 times as likely to serve as the average man.

The Williams report estimates have been criticized on methodological grounds, so the figures should be taken with a grain of salt. But it does provide one piece of evidence about a larger trend. And there are others.

In 2013, a team of epidemiologists at the Veterans Health Administration published a study on the prevalence of “gender identity disorder” (a classification since abandoned by the American Psychiatric Association) among the millions of veterans within the VHA system.

After poring over hundreds of thousands of health records from between 2000 and 2011, the researchers found that roughly 23 out of every 100,000 patients in the VHA were diagnosed with GID. That is over five times higher than the total population rate of 4.3 per 100,000.

John Blosnich, the lead author on the paper, acknowledges that using GID diagnosis codes is a “very flawed way” to identify transgender vets.

“If you can imagine, a trans person comes into the V.A. or any sort of medical center with a broken arm, there would be a [record] for a broken arm, but there wouldn’t be an ID code for Gender Identity Disorder,” he explains. “So it’s probably an underestimate, if anything.”

Like the estimates provided in the the Williams Institute, the VHA report provides an imprecise statistic. But taken together, they point to the same broader conclusion.

“I think it’s pretty apparent that, yes, trans people are more likely to serve,” says Jake Eleazer, a doctoral student at the University of Louisville who is writing his counseling psychology dissertation on the experience of transgender service members. Eleazer is also a captain in the Kentucky Army National Guard, a board member with the LGBT service member advocacy group, SPART*A, and a transgender man.

“But then it does lead to the question,” says Eleazer. “Why are trans people more likely to serve?”

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