First U.S. transgender soldiers make gender transition after policy shift

by Sebastien Malo | @SebastienMalo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 11 November 2016 18:55 GMT

US Army soldiers carry a large U.S. flag as they march in the Veterans Day parade on 5th Avenue in New York November in this 2014 file photo.

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"The only thing that we should be discriminating on is performance"

By Sebastien Malo

NEW YORK, Nov 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For several years, transgender U.S. Army Captain Julia Harrison shunned military social events, anxious at the thought of having to wear the pants and coat of male service members despite identifying as a woman.

But earlier this year, the Army officer was able to attend her first military ball donning the dress uniform assigned to female soldiers.

"If I hadn't been able to wear that uniform then I simply wouldn't have attended the event," said Harrison, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. "More than the uniform, it was the feeling of being part of the army family again."

A month after the repeal of a ban on transgender people openly serving in the U.S. military went into effect, Harrison is part of a small contingent of soldiers who have officially changed their gender on armed forces records.

Up to 10,700 transgender people may be serving in the U.S. military out of a personnel of 1.4 million, according to a 2016 study by the RAND Corporation, a California-based defense think tank.

But only a handful have so far sought for their gender to be changed in military records.

SPART*A, an online support group that includes roughly 500 active-duty transgender members of the military, said at least 10 transgender soldiers had sought to formally register their preferred gender.

"We've got many more who started their process a little later than that and they're working their way through the administrative process," said Blake Dremann, SPART*A's president.

An Army spokesman declined to confirm the figure, while the U.S. Department of Defense said the number across the armed forces was "small".


This summer, Harrison recalls watching in her office as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced live on television he was repealing the ban on serving openly by transgender troops. Previously, the ban had meant a soldier like Harrison could be discharged on the basis of being transgender.

Harrison stepped outside her office to take in the life-altering news in the privacy of her car.

"It was hard to believe that we had finally gotten to that point," she said. "It just kind of took a moment ... to let it feel like it was real."

Changing gender had been a testing chapter of Harrison's life, putting a strain on her marriage and raising the specter of losing a career in which she had invested more than a decade.

During a one-year deployment in Afghanistan, Harrison grew tired of the many precautions she took to avoid uncomfortable situations in the male living quarters. She would shower after other soldiers - sometimes as late as 2 am, and wait for the dozens of men with whom she shared a tent to leave before getting dressed in the morning.

"There was just this constant anxiety and worry and I knew that something sort of wasn't right," Harrison, who is in her 30s told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It sort of starts to consume your thoughts."

With the support of her wife, Harrison finally began medically transitioning to the body of a woman, eventually legally changing her name.

Still, as she looked increasingly feminine after a series of cosmetic surgeries, she remained in the eyes of the Army a male soldier whose subordinates were required to address as 'sir'.

Then one day, Harrison was outed to her unit by a colleague who had tracked her down on social media.

"I was pretty distraught," she said.


Most U.S. transgender military veteran and active-duty service members have been harassed at work, according to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Such discrimination is likely to discourage transgender service members from making the leap to serving openly, said Denny Meyer, a spokesman for the Transgender American Veterans Association.

"Transgender service members have been the most discriminated against," he said in a telephone interview.

Now assigned to a new unit, Harrison said commanders have been "extremely supportive".

But for most service members, Meyer predicted the road to inclusion would be tortuous.

Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election this week has left many transgender advocates fearing a backlash against their community. The president-elect has promised to nominate a conservative justice to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Transgender members of the military "are holding back," Meyer said.

"They need to see the handwriting on the wall, that, yes, the Pentagon is doing what they promised."

An Army spokesman said the service was in the initial stages of educating soldiers about its new transgender policy - with a training module underway.

"The Army is open to all individuals who can meet the physical and mental fitness standards that qualifies applicants for military service," the spokesman said.

Harrison agrees that the Army is making progress.

"The only thing that we should be discriminating on is performance," she said. "And I think every day, we're getting a little bit closer to that."

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit

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