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Transgender military service is as American as apple pie

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As the military quietly greeted the New Year by accepting transgender recruits, let’s not forget that first gender changer in military history was a draft dodger.

Thetis, mother of Achilles, heard a prediction that her son would die in the Trojan War, so she dressed her nine-year-old as a girl, and packed him off to the Island of Skyros to serve as a lady-in-waiting to King Lycomedes. This was all going fine, until in fulfillment of another prediction that Achilles would be a hero of the Trojan War, Odysseus showed up, removed his deferment, and packed him off to Troy.

{mosads}It’s hard to miss the irony that Achilles died from a vulnerable heel, given that the current occupant of the White House relied on bone spurs in his heel for one of his five deferments.


Compare and contrast the fate of the woman, Epipole of Carystus, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Trojan War. Things were going well for her until Palamedes, the inventor of both money and jokes, discovered the disguise, and the Greek Army stoned her to death. Some joke.

Putting Greek myth aside, I could end any debate about transgender service by citing evidence that the greatest military person of all time, Alexander the Great, was arguably a crossdresser and LBGTQ. Who knows what he might have chosen, had gender reassignment surgery been an option?

Fast forward nearly two millennia, and the sainted Joan of Arc was burned at the stake because she led her troops in male clothing. And a few hundred years later, Deborah Sampson of Uxbridge, Massachusetts disguised herself as man to fight for our independence.

Had the Purple Heart existed she would have won it, getting two musket balls in her thigh in a battle near Tarrytown, New York. Fearful of discovery, she removed one of the balls herself. The other, too deep, to remove, left her with a disability for the rest of her life, but did not prevent her from bearing three children before her death at sixty-six in 1827.

She eventually received a military pension — making her the first certified female veteran — but supplemented it by donning her uniform and putting on shows of physically taxing military drills.

Heterosexual male military is historically the norm, but it’s not universal.

The ancient Greeks considered homosexuality to be a morale booster and a foundation for unit cohesion. This contradicts the argument that any variation from the straight male norm is bad for fighting spirit. The Sacred Band of Thebes was an ancient special forces unit composed of 150 male couples. The military ethos has always been that soldiers fight not for their country but for their buddies in the fox holes.

Who better than your lover? Perhaps we should put committed couples of all permutations in units together. The Sacred Band was largely undefeated until Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, annihilated them at Chaeraena, wept at their valor, and erected a memorial, which stands to this day. Gay service, if not the norm, is historically quite normal, whether in closet or out.

Black people have also served in all our wars. Crispus Attucks, a black person, was our first casualty for freedom in the Boston Massacre. But black people were often held to be unfit for the most demanding combat roles. Airplanes were considered to be too complicated for them, but then the World War II Tuskegee Airmen became one of most decorated units in our segregated army.

Truman recognized the illogic of fighting with a military that fails to draw upon all its human resources when he integrated the military by executive order, sixty-nine years to the day in July that Trump tweeted his anticipated end to transgender recruitment. Truman, in contrast, put an end to the absurdity characterized by historian Stephen Ambrose, “The world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.”

In the sweep of history, genders, sexual orientations, and skin colors change, but the arguments remain the same.

Marine Commandant, General Clifton B. Cates, objected to Truman’s desegregation order by insisting that military should not be an “agency for experimentation in civil liberty without its ability to maintain the efficiency and the high state of readiness so essential to national defense.” He added that full desegregation would “be making a problem instead of solving one.”

Truman’s Secretary of the Army, Kenneth Royall, argued that black people were uniquely suited for support, not combat, and that it would undermine combat readiness: “Effective comradeship in battle calls for a warm and close personal relationship within a unit.”

President Trump’s hoped-for ban on transgender people in the military echoed earlier objections to Truman’s desegregation order: “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Think of Trump’s “disruption” as channeling Commandant Cates’ “making a problem instead of solving one.”

Representative Trent Franks—who recently retired over allegations of sexual harassment — could have been referring to 1940s black servicemen when he warned, “We continue to let the defense bill be the mule for all of these social experiments that the left wants to try to foist on government.”

To summarize, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

All this disregards the historical fact that black people, women, and LGBTQ people have always served with valor and distinction. Until the July tweet banning transgender service, the most we had heard about the topic was a delay by Defense Secretary Mattis in implementing the transgender policy, but nothing about their fitness to serve.

Whatever you think of Israeli politics, no one can doubt the toughness of its military. Transgender service? Not a problem, and their medical expenses are covered by what else — their universal health care system. And this is in a country where conservative religious views are far more part of the government than the most theocratic Americans could wish for here. Aside from Israeli, eighteen of our NATO allies allow transgender service, and at least eight more are moving in that direction. Not a single adversary nation — e.g., Iran, Russia, North Korea —allows transgender services.

In the United States, about 2,500 active duty service members are transgender, as are 1,500 reservists. The costs of their medical needs within the defense budget are barely a rounding error. Not all transgender people opt for surgery and associated medical costs. The Rand Corporation estimates on the high-side the additional costs to be $8.4 million, an 0.13 percent increase. That’s a few million out of a budget of close to $600 billion for 2017. Viagra, at $84 million costs the military ten times as much. Nobody is calling for the military exclusion of the erectility dysfunctional.

Any country that doesn’t draw upon the full potential of its human resources goes to war with one hand behind its back. I hesitate to use Nazi examples, but the Third Reich’s exclusion of women from war industries — until it was fortunately too late — seriously hampered its war effort.

Today’s military is unimaginable without black people, women, and gay people. Even had the ban remained in place, transgender people would have continued to serve, just as gay people had surreptitiously served throughout our history, until their ban was lifted.

Ira Rosofsky PhD is a psychologist who has worked for years providing services in eldercare facilities. He is the author of Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Eldercare, a memoir of his professional life, and the story of caregiving to his own frail, elderly parents. His writing on healthcare policy has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Salon, among other outlets.

Tags Donald Trump Gender Genderqueer LGBT LGBT rights in the United States Transgender people and military service Transgender personnel in the United States military Transsexual Trent Franks

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