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Transgender American
Veterans Association's
revitalized mission

Transgender military service has naturally existed throughout human and American history including, among others, highly respected Two-Spirit Native Americans and soldiers who served during the war between the states in both the Confederate and Union armies.  In the current modern era, many of America's allied nations have included their transgender citizens among those who may or must serve in their armed forces along with everyone else, including Israel, Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and the United Kingdom; both Canada and the UK provide sex reassignment surgery for their transgender service members, according to S.W.A.N.  While there is no official estimate of the number of Transgender American veterans or service members, the S.W.A.N. report notes that NCTE (National Center for Transgender Equality) estimates that "transgender individuals are twice as likely to join the U.S. military compared to the general population."  In interviewing hundreds of LGBT veterans since 2006, Gay Military Signal has found proud patriotic transgender veterans who have served in every role in our American armed forces, including submariners, Marines, Special Forces, intelligence, gunners, and drill instructors.  In other words, as our allies have found, gender identity and sexual orientation do not detract from the courage and patriotism needed to serve and sacrifice for one's country.

And yet, in the United States, even years after the repeal of DADT, DOD Instruction 6130.03 and other regulations regarding conduct still ban the service of Transgender American patriots.  Neither the DADT law nor its repeal included nor considered transgender service, thus leaving DOD regulations concerning it in effect to this day.

Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA) began advocating for competent and relevant VA treatment for transgender veterans early in the current millennium, around 2002, and shortly thereafter organized a march on Washington which included a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.  In the span of a few short years, TAVA conducted the nation's first comprehensive survey of transgender veterans, analyzed by the Palm Center and achieved its initial goal in the issuance of a White House directive requiring respectful, dignified, relevant and competent treatment of transgender veterans, to include both counseling and hormone therapy in support of transition.  The Directive, issued by the VHA in 2011 and revised in 2013, included the review and considerable input of the TAVA board and others; and represented the achievement of TAVA's original mission and goals.

In a giant bureaucracy, unfortunately, even the clearest policy and procedural guidelines can become ensnared in the molasses of inertia and distorted and contradicted by the personal beliefs of minor bureaucrats.  Subsequent training programs eventually counteract this negative tendency.  In the meantime, TAVA found itself in the role of monitoring the progress of change, and collecting the complaints of those affected veterans still waiting for freedom from discrimination.

Progress has come slowly but steadily with a growing list of VA supportive programs for transgender and LGBT veterans, and the appointment of national VHA 'LGBT Program Coordinators for Patient Care.'  One of the current coordinators, Dr. Jillian Shipherd, was one of the original authors of the Directive, and has been instrumental in responding to issues concerning transgender veterans.

During this same period, the earthquake of the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy made it crystal clear to TAVA leaders that patriotic transgender volunteers were left out of the biggest change in military policy regarding minorities since President Harry S. Truman racially integrated our armed forces by Executive Order in 1948.  Transgender service members were, and still remain, subject to investigation, interrogation, and involuntary discharge simply because of who they are.

Angela Brightfeather, TAVA's current president, was one of the founders of TAVA and organized the March on Washington in 2004.  In an interview, she recounted TAVA's epiphany which led to the new mission of advocating for legalizing the service of transgender patriotic volunteers in our armed forces, along with continued active vigilance of VA policy and treatment of veterans.  The provision of sexual reassignment surgery remains a crucial element of TAVA's goals and is inherently intertwined with the right and freedom to serve in our nation's armed forces.

Among the many issues she raised was the influence of the APA, the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).  The removal of homosexuality as a diagnosable disorder, decades ago,  was one of the factors enabling the eventual legislation allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual patriotic volunteers to serve openly in our armed forces.  The recent change regarding gender identity issues has thus far not affected the status of transgender service, however.  If transgender people had the right to serve, on the other hand, TAVA could tell the APA that its designation did not reflect reality, according to Ms. Brightfeather.

It was her background as a drill sergeant, according to Angela, that gave her the organizational ability and temperament to deal with all the endless details of the Washington March during the early days of TAVA's formation.  LGBT rights pioneer Frank Kameny, a gay WWII veteran, provided encouragement and advice; but it was the former drill sergeant who worked through the resistance of Arlington's guard personnel, and the 'movement of transgender veteran troops,' around Washington from the Vietnam Wall, to the Iwo Jima and Arlington Memorials. 

Her activist organizational experience extends back to at least the 1980s when she formed a transgender group in New York and subsequently received a Trinity award for her ongoing efforts.  She summed up her ongoing lifetime activism saying, "After all these years I've learned that the activists that count are the ones who keep the soul of the community in their minds and hearts.  Gender Equality is the right of every person to express whatever gender is comfortable to them.  HOPI Indians have 32 genders that a person can express!  What we are about is between your ears, not between your legs.  We are all about our history.  We are canary in the mine now, we are living proof that sexual and gender discrimination exists in a country that is supposed to be equal, and it isn't."

"TAVA's mission," according to Angela, "is continued vigilance of VA compliance with its own directive, and to continue to use 'who we are' to further our cause of free gender expression for all people without discrimination.   And a part of 'who we are' is veterans -which is a big part of what we have done in our lives.  That status puts us on a plain where we can walk into our Congressmen's offices and be listened to and respected as veterans who have done our duty and earned the recognition due those who have contributed to and sacrificed for our nation."  Hence, being heard and being included in legislation is the current challenge for the organization which is fighting those who insist on only a binary definition of gender in our armed forces and in our American society.

That challenge, according to Angela, is to gain the organizational strength to prevent the loss of the gains in acceptance already achieved within the VA, to have the strength to be able to move forward to be a part of America's future and active members of America's armed forces.  "We have to gain the strength to represent ourselves.  Who better than veterans to do that, who have already given of their lives in service to our country," she said.  "As American veterans, we are the antithesis of what other people think of transgender people.  We are veterans who have laid down our lives for America; who better to express our demand for equal rights?  That is the current and future mission of TAVA!"

In closing our interview, Angela stressed that 'heart' and 'humanity' are what she considers essential beyond what she considers 'sterile mission statements.'  She wants it understood that "there is a human behind every bureaucratic decision on discrimination and the repeal of discriminatory policies.  Our humanity is the essential element of what we are doing which propels us and motivates us to achieve our goal of equality.  Without the recognition of our humanity, achieving change is meaningless."

The new TAVA website may be seen at http://www.tavausa.org.

2014 GayMilitarySignal