Though the US military lifted its 17-year-old Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in 2011, transgender servicemembers are still prohibited from serving openly — but the ban could soon come to an end.
“You suffer from isolation,” says Krista Whipple, president of the Gender Identity Center of Colorado. “You feel you can’t talk to anybody about it. You’re very closed off. It’s not a comfortable way to live for anybody.”
Krista joined the Marine Corps in June of 1998 shortly after she graduated high school. Trained as a computer technician, she was stationed at Okinawa, Japan for two years before transferring to the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command at Twentynine Palms, California.
Though Krista found some support outside of the military at nearby Palm Springs, she was reticent to share her transgender status with others.
“I wasn’t really out about my situation while I was in the military,” says Krista, “with the exception of a few close friends who were also in the military at the time.”
Even after she left the Marine Corps to work for Lockheed Martin, Krista didn’t escape her seclusion. When a transgender contestant was featured on a nation-wide talent show, she was inundated by her co-workers with discriminatory and ignorant comments regarding the transgender community.
“I absolutely felt trapped,” says Krista. “It was excruciating, because on one hand, you really want to stand up and say, ‘You guys are being stupid.’ But on the other hand, it’s about self protection.”
According to a Palm Center study released in March of this year, there are 134,350 transgender veterans, and an estimated 8,800 active duty transgender servicemembers with an additional 6,650 in the Guard or Reserve.
For those thousands of military members, coming out as transgender — or being discovered — means the end of a military career. In April, The Washington Post featured a story on Landon Wilson, who was booted out of the Navy after it was discovered he was born female.
But the very next month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” that the military should review its ban regarding transgender servicemembers.
“Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it,” Hagel says. “This is an area that we’ve not defined enough.”
Krista approaches Hagel’s statement with cautious optimism. “I appreciate the sentiment. I think it’s great we have people in power who have the ability to make these decisions and make these changes, but I don’t think it’s one that we should look at lightly.”
Transgender organizations were very critical when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) ended, emphasizing that transgender personnel are still serving in silence, but Krista reiterates there are issues that must be addressed before lifting the ban.
“I’m not big on the [DADT] decision,” says Krista, “but I kind of understand why it may be better currently to keep the [transgender ban] in place. If I go into boot camp, and I identify one way and they put me in an opposite group, how does that work? Or on the other side of the case, if I go in as I identify, and I’m put in with a group that matches my identity, how does that play out?”
Krista adds that although protecting military personnel from harm is top priority, especially during boot camp, the safety of military members cannot be guaranteed all the time.
“There’s still a lot of hateful people who don’t have a problem using violence to express their point of view. It’s just not a safe environment.”
But Krista is hopeful that Hagel’s insistence to review the ban will address those issues. “It’s a step in the right direction. If it’s handled with care and it’s handled in such a manner that it keeps people protected and safe, then absolutely I’m all for it, obviously.”
One strategy is to review the military policies of other nations. There are as many as 12 countries that allow transgender servicemembers to serve openly, including Canada, Israel, Australia, and England.
“It’s all about education,” says Krista. “If everybody was taught that there’s no tolerance for any kind of discrimination or violence, it might work, but again you’d have to have enough people in the situation who are supportive, who could challenge anyone who doesn’t support it.”
In addition to the growing momentum within the military itself, there are clear signs that a progressive shift in perspective is taking place within private companies that work on military bases as government contractors.
“I transitioned at Schriever AFB, which is kind of out there in the middle of nowhere,” says Krista. “There’s a lot of military and former military, and I originally expected I wasn’t going to be able to transition on the job.”
But when she approached Lockheed’s human resources department in 2011, she was told the company had helped other transgender employees before. Starting this year, Lockheed has begun covering surgeries under their health program for transgender employees.
Krista knows that not everyone has had the same positive experiences, and she encourages those who silently endure discrimination to find support in the community and within.
“Ultimately, it’s about finding solace and strength within yourself,” says Krista. “Transition should not be a burden, it should be a wonderful thing. It should be about becoming the real you and allowing yourself to be that person. And if you have that in front of you, something to look forward to, that’s going to help you surpass the obstacles you’re currently facing.”
Krista is confident that the military’s ban on transgender personnel will one day be removed, but only if everyone works in solidarity to implement that change. “It’s not a matter of the trans community banding together and stepping out and saying we want these things changed. It’s more a matter of everybody who’s not trans standing up and saying we want equal rights for them as well, and we’re here to support that.”