What Other Countries Can Teach America About Transgender Military Service

Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Vizel, the Israel Defense Forces’ top gender adviser, meets with soldiers.

Photo courtesy of the IDF

During last Thursday’s Republican debates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took a moment to explain the true function of the U.S. armed forces. “The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things. … The purpose is to protect America,” he declared. At odds with this vision is the idea of allowing transgender troops to serve openly—a goal Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced in July, when he ordered a six-month study aimed at lifting the current ban. “I’m not sure how paying for transgender surgery for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines makes our country safer,” Huckabee added, though host Bret Baier had not, in fact, asked whether the military should fund the troops’ transition.

Huckabee, who is a fan of reinstating the repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and has previously made ugly comments about trans people, probably isn’t interested in some of the more prosaic reasons a military should strive for open LGBTQ service: to live up to the core values of dignity, integrity, and respect; to reflect the diversity of the country it serves; to bring its long-outdated medical standards up to date; or to recognize that there is “no compelling medical reason for the ban,” according to a report from a commission co-chaired by former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. So let’s just assume that his main concern is that the armed services are prepared to kill people and break things.

Well, couldn’t they break a lot more things with a lot more soldiers? There are an estimated 15,500 trans troops currently in the military, and studies show that they could be serving a lot more effectively if they had access to proper health and medical care. And more would sign up if we let them: According to a recent report from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender respondents are twice as likely as the rest of the population to enlist. Besides, it takes effort and resources to find and remove transgender soldiers, as a 2014 report by the Planning Commission on Transgender Military Service pointed out.

But perhaps the most convincing argument for open trans service is to be found beyond our borders. While all militaries are different, we can learn a lot from studying the successes and stumbles of other countries, as we did when researching the feasibility of welcoming gay, lesbian, and bisexual troops. Eighteen countries—including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, and Norway—currently allow transgender troops to serve with no negative repercussions. The takeaway? “The pattern is that inclusion does not harm the military, and in fact, makes it better,” says Aaron Belkin, who authored a 2001 report assessing the impact of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and later testified at the government hearing that overturned that ban.

Here are three examples of countries that lifted their bans, and where the armed forces are stronger than ever.

In 1982, Canada implemented the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which mandated that all governmental bodies review their policies to protect individuals’ equality and civil rights. One of those bodies was the Canadian Forces. In 1988 and 1992, the Canadian Forces issued regulations to reduce and remove all discrimination based on sexual orientation, which implicitly included “gender nonconformity.” In 1992, America’s neighbor to the north opened its ranks to transgender soldiers, and in 1998, it amended its medical policies “to recognize sex reassignment surgery as an appropriate treatment for gender identity disorder and to include it as a covered medical procedure.”

In 2013, the Palm Center—a research branch of San Francisco State University’s Department of Political Science focusing on gender, sexuality, and the military—asked researcher Alan Okros to assess how these new regulations had affected Canada’s battle readiness. In the course of his research, Okros interviewed senior military leaders, searched press and academic publications, and read more than a hundred internal military and governmental reports and policy memos. His conclusion, as he and co-author Denise Scott wrote in their 2015 report: “Despite ongoing prejudice and incomplete policy formulation and implementation, allowing transgender personnel to serve openly has not harmed the CF’s effectiveness.”

A few months ago, I asked Okros what the United States could learn from Canada’s experience. Okros pointed out that when Canada lifted its military ban, it hadn’t taken into account many of the administrative policies it would need to codify for a smooth transition. What’s more, at the time, Canadian society wasn’t particularly hospitable to gay and transgender individuals. Nevertheless, despite open hostility and a lack of administrative planning, the Canadian Forces was able to open its ranks without compromising military readiness.

It stands to reason that lifting the U.S. ban would proceed even more smoothly, he said. And there’s no reason not to do it now. “They’re already serving, they’re already in uniform,” says Okros. “You’ve got Americans who have said that they want to serve their country. Let them. And let them do it well.”

Many argue that it’s all well and good for countries like Canada and New Zealand to reform their militaries, but the United States is the defender of the free world—any changes could have serious consequences. (Never mind that the Canadian armed forces spent more than 10 years in Afghanistan “very effectively breaking things and killing people,” as Okros told me.) “The military is not a social experiment,” said Huckabee during the Aug. 6 debates. His implication was that we can’t afford to make changes that might risk harming our battle readiness, including changing our outdated policies on transgender soldiers.

A useful comparison here is Israel, the tiny Middle Eastern nation that boasts one of the most powerful—and inclusive—armies in the world. Israel is the only nation that demands compulsory military service for all men and women (with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox). That means that the Israel Defense Forces began with a very different assumption than most military’s: The question was never should this soldier be serving,” but rather, how can they serve as effectively as possible? “The goal was that everyone should be in the army, and everyone should be safe and comfortable in the army,” Brig. Gen. Rachel Tevet-Vizel, the IDF’s top gender adviser, told me recently. Sexual orientation and gender were irrelevant, she added. “It wasn’t our business.”

As a result, the IDF has become known one as of the most LGBT-friendly armies around. It ranked ninth for LGBT-friendliness in the 2014 LGBT Military Index, a report created by the independent Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, earning extra points for its sensitivity and efforts toward education of its military personnel. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual troops have been officially integrated since 1993. In 2013, after much discussion, the IDF drafted its first openly transgender soldier, a 17-year-old who had undergone gender reassignment surgery and was enlisting as a female soldier. In 2014, Israel announced that the it would work to offer additional support to transgender recruits and to facilitate their transition, starting from when they received their first draft notice at age 16. “Progress and tolerance are the key words,” says Tevet-Vizel.

So how has all that openness and inclusivity worked out? Whatever your views on Middle East geopolitics, it’s clear that Israel’s military is a force to be reckoned with. With a $15 billion annual defense budget, 176,500 active frontline personnel, 3,870 tanks, 680 aircraft, and a slew of high-tech armed drones, it’s considered the most powerful army in the Middle East. Including gay and trans soldiers hasn’t changed that at all: There has been no negative impact on readiness, cohesion, performance, or morale, Palm Center’s studies show. And, for better or worse, they kill a lot of people and break a lot of things.

In 2014, Hannah Winterbourne of the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers became the first transgender officer in the British army; she even received an extra grant to change her uniform after her transition. “Initially, it was a bit of a shock to some people,” Winterbourne told BuzzFeed. “They weren’t really expecting it because it’s not something you come across every day in the army. However, I think people soon realized that it didn’t make a difference to my job. At the end of the day I could still do all the things I could do before I transitioned.” Winterbourne says she loves army life, and she is currently second-in-command of a company of more than 100 soldiers. In other words, she’s exactly the kind of leader and asset you’d want to have if you were looking to build a strong military.

Transgender soldiers may soon be seen in even higher ranks and in combat roles in the United Kingdom. Recently, Lt. Gen. Andrew Gregory—the British chief of defense personnel in charge of diversity and inclusivity—told the BBC that the army would seriously consider allowing  transgender women to serve in combat roles. (Currently, cis women can’t serve in combat roles where the goal is to “close with and kill the enemy.”) While Gregory didn’t say for sure that trans women would be able to serve in such roles, he did say, “If somebody—birth gender male—who physically has all the physical strength and durability but had transitioned, they might well be able.” The military has “absolutely got to tap all sections of society,” he added.

Huckabee and others who have criticized the decision to lift the U.S. transgender service ban are right about one thing: The transition shouldn’t be done hastily. Which is why it’s great that we have all these examples to learn from. With the benefit of the research the United States undertook on other countries’ systems in preparation for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Palm Center’s reports, lifting the transgender ban should go smoothly, say Belkin and Okros.

Of course, key administrative steps would need to be taken, but these steps would be “neither difficult nor burdensome,” says Okros. In fact, Secretary Carter’s review is currently looking into exactly these issues, conferring with senior officers to figure out whether the military should pay for surgeries and hormones; what the physical training standards should be; how to ensure appropriate housing, bathrooms, and uniforms; and the potential impact on small-unit cohesion. If all goes well, the reform could go into effect early next year.

Then we can all go back to letting our diverse, inclusive army go out there and kill people and break things on our behalf.

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