Some Troops Rushed To See Doctors Before The Military's New Transgender Policy Took Effect
The policy bans transgender recruits and prevents current troops from transitioning to another sex unless they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria before April 12.
The Defense Department has implemented a Trump administration policy that bars transgender recruits from joining the military. The policy took effect April 12, though several lawsuits challenging it are pending in federal courts.
Under the new rule, trans troops who are already in the military can continue to serve. But they can't transition to another sex unless they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria before the policy took effect. Troops who can't comply could be discharged.
Trans service members and would-be recruits scrambled to meet the deadline.
"There's definitely been a rush to get doctors appointments and expedite the process of obtaining that diagnosis," said Jamie Hash, an Air Force Tech Sargeant who transitioned to being a woman several years ago. She often speaks on behalf of trans people who serve and has counseled Air Force leaders about how best to support their trans colleagues.
Hash said the transgender service policy has forced people to decide in a hurry whether to come out as trans and seek a diagnosis.
"For some people, they may not have been in a situation where they were ready to start the process," Hash said. "But this new policy has put them in a situation where they either have to now or they will no longer be able to in the future."
But getting diagnoses proved challenging for many service members, especially those who were deployed.
"If I had to name the top two issues that the service members have faced, it's getting an appointment and seeing a doctor willing to diagnose them," said Air Force Lt. Col. Bree Fram, a member of the transgender military advocacy group SPART*A.
"Luckily, we've had a number of military medical providers go out of their way to add additional appointments or consider telemedicine for some folks that are deployed, or are just having trouble getting an appointment," Fram said.
Fram said many currently serving trans people don't yet have a gender dysphoria diagnosis, Factors like career uncertainty and social stigma often play a role in the decision to seek one.
The Defense Department does not track the number of service members or recruits who identify as transgender. The 2016 Department of Defense estimate found that about nine thousand active duty service members were transgender, though fewer than a thousand had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria in early 2018.
"Honestly, we're worried that they're going to leave the service," Fram said. "They have a lot to offer. But if they need to take care of themselves, they may need to leave the service in order to do that."
Current service members weren't the only ones crunched by the deadline. Fram says openly transgender people trying to enlist met with a barrage of misinformation at recruiting offices, even before April 12, when they were still permitted to join.
"It varies widely," Fram said. "So some people will talk to a recruiter, and the recruiter will say, 'No, the policy is we don't take trans people.' They might be basing that on a tweet or something they heard otherwise, but not the actual policy."
The Navy and Air Force have taken steps to mitigate the ban's impact, according to advocates.
Representatives from SPART*A report that in the weeks leading up the policy's implementation, the Air Force streamlined to process by which airmen get provisional approval for gender dysphoria diagnoses made by civilian medical providers. Throughout the military, some troops were given leeway if they had trouble getting a gender dysphoria diagnosis from a military doctor in time.
Meanwhile, the Navy has announced that trans service members can dress as their preferred gender while off-duty.
Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center For Lesbian Rights and a lawyer challenging the policy, said the service branches don't support the Trump Administration's decision on transgender troops.
"They don't want to ban transgender people. They recognize these are valuable colleagues," Minter said. "We've seen this constant pattern of resistance, of the military trying to soften the blow and protect transgender service members as much as they can, and then being constantly overridden by political leaders from the top."
A spokesman for the Air Force didn't go that far, but said, "We are in the business of taking care of Airmen and commanders at all levels will continue to do so."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.