Friday 9 May 2014

Big Brave Soldier

My recent interview with Treva Askey, a former British soldier who is now transitioning, took place amid my thought processes about transgender people serving in the armed forces. There has actually been quite a lot of discussion about this topic in the press lately.

When I was a child, I was a sensitive boy who cried easily. I remember often being told to be a "big brave soldier". This phrase bristled with me then-- and continues to do so today. My parents were not being cruel: they were simply trying to encourage me to behave in a certain way, which they felt was more appropriate (for the record, it didn't work: I am still a sensitive person and I still cry easily).
Upper lips: stiff

It was clear why they chose this phrase. A soldier is someone who is the archetype of courage, discipline, and moral clarity. It is unspoken, but a soldier, of course, is someone who doesn't struggle with his sexuality, nor with his gender identity.

But, for what it was worth, I realised that, as a child, I was braver than many of my peers in some circumstances. For example, I was untroubled by some things (like big scary bugs) which made others visibly queasy. So this other kid, he can kick a football like a cannon, but can't pick up a spider: why is he considered braver than me? That seemed unfair.

As I have grown older, I have viewed military people with a mixture of both admiration and fear. Admiration, in that (in the main) I admire what they do, protecting the interests of my country and ensuring that my family and I can sleep safe in our beds without worrying about being invaded or bombed or have our way of life brutally suppressed. But also fear, in that they achieve that by learning how to hurt and kill other people, sometimes with truly dreadful efficiency. I find some military types to be overbearing and intimidating.

You will be familiar with the notion that the military has to "break you down" before they "build you up". Nobody enters the military willing to hurt or kill somebody else. The military needs to remove your inhibitions to cause harm, to hurt, to kill, and it does that very precisely: by subjecting you to gruelling physical challenges, to strict and dehumanising rituals, to harsh and disproportionate punishments. And to make it stick, it dresses this up in very attractive guise: flags and uniforms, medals and heroism, music and pageantry, and intense camaraderie.

Of course, it needs to do these things to make you an effective fighting person. You need to learn that you are less important than the whole, and you need to subsume your will to the orders you need to carry out. The military can't work as a democracy: ("Excuse me, sergeant? I don't really think advancing on that hill is a very good idea, when you think about it". "You're quite right, private. Raise your hands if you think we should all go to the pub instead").
Autumn Sandeen

The military also needs to inculcate a very powerful sense of moral clarity. We are the good guys. They are the bad guys. They are not like us: they don't look like us, they don't talk like us, they eat weird foods, they don't worship like us (and in any case, God is on our side). In fact, they're not really human, and that makes it OK to get rid of them.

I am certain that being in the military would cause intolerable psychological harm to me. I prize my individuality extremely highly. My inability to take orders from stupid people would require that I be brutalised until I gave up resisting. And I cannot contemplate the person they would "build me up" into becoming.

But (as I said elsewhere), that's not to say I would have nothing to offer my country. Give me a gun and put me in a uniform, and I would be useless. On the other hand, put me in Bletchley Park with the other misfits, and we will win the war for you. To put it bluntly, I don't need to be broken down before I can be useful! (And my loyalty to my country is not in question).

It is this ability of the military to assign us and them which troubles me. If you are not 100% with us, you are against us. It makes it easy for people in the military who are not quite like "us" to be rejected and brutalised. And who is not quite like "us"? Well, homosexual and transgender people are a good place to start. Private Barry Winchell was bullied and eventually murdered by one of his comrades for dating a male-to-female transwoman.
Discharged for transitioning: Sage Fox

We all know of course, that a man who falls in love with another man (or a man who thinks he was born a woman) is somehow soft, somehow effeminate, somehow morally twisted, and therefore prone to cowardice and treachery. We can't have that in the military. First of all, a man needs to be a real man with no hint of femininity. Second of all, imagine the effect on morale if you are constantly on your guard in case your buddy wants to molest you sexually instead of guarding your back. The solution, of course, is to keep all those queers and gays and trannies out.

These arguments are obviously flawed. The reason is that there are (and have always been) gay and trans people in the military (we can start with the Chevalier D'Eon!). They have in many cases served with distinction, shown great valour, and have sometimes been highly decorated. So much for their intrinsic weaknesses. Second, those reports of soldiers sexually abusing their comrades just haven't materialised. It turns out that your gay buddy is every bit as interested in surviving the conflict alive as you are, and he has no more interest in sexually molesting you than you have of him. So morale hasn't suffered. The military hasn't collapsed amid a shower of pink sparks.

There are hints that the tide is beginning to turn. This article isn't big enough to explore the US military, where acceptance of gay people is on the rise. Instead, it's about trans people, where acceptance lags quite a long way behind. This excellent article in the New York Times by Julia Baird reports that 20% of US trans people have served in the military. This is borne out by my personal experience corresponding with other transgender people. In addition to the military, there are plenty of others who have served in the police and other "masculine" occupations.
Baird: Nine percent of transgender people who have served in the American military report being discharged because of being transgender or gender nonconforming. Almost all of the rest stay quiet for fear of harassment or abuse.

A Harvard study published last year found that most transgender military personnel in America are white, educated and middle-aged. And most eventually transitioned from male to female. It also found that 20 percent of transgender people had served in the military — double the rate of the general population. (There is a theory that many seek “hypermasculine” experiences to suppress their desire to be female.) A University of California survey found almost all — 97 percent — were not able to transition until after they left the service.
And she quotes a female-to-male serviceman whom she identifies only as Ryan:
Ryan: I wear an American uniform and I represent a country supposedly defined by liberty and equality. But my allies are welcome to serve in a way that has most certainly just cost me my livelihood. If these countries’ soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines can serve openly and authentically as transgender women and men, why can’t I?
Still serving: Cate McGregor
And serving officer Captain Sage Fox writes:
Fox:I'm a transgender woman and an Army Officer. I want what everyone who cares about our military and our country should want: The freedom to live our lives in peace, raise our children in safety, and live according to our personal and collective ideals. Without these, what ARE we fighting for?
The first military transwoman I heard of was Jan Hamilton in her famous documentary Sex Change Soldier. Jan served in an elite Special Forces unit, and there is a short sequence in the documentary which shows some of the comments she received from her former comrades after she came out. They are unbelievably painful and hurtful. At the time of this documentary, it wasn't possible to transition and remain serving in the British army, although it now is.

But the second had a slightly more hopeful story. Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor came out while serving as a senior (and decorated) officer in the Australian Army. However, her commanding officer refused to accept her resignation when she tendered it, and refuted her claim that she was bringing embarrassment to his office. Although McGregor has continued to serve, she describes the "drumbeat of personal abuse" she has suffered since coming out, and also talks of difficulty explaining things to her wife.
Warrior Princess: Kristin Beck

And most recently, highly decorated US Navy SEAL and transwoman Kristin Beck has published her autobiography, Warrior Princess. Beck is literally festooned with decorations. Her Wikipedia article speculates that its publication has encouraged US Defence officials to reconsider their policy about trans people serving in the military, and Una at TransasCity mentions a study which shows that it would have few negative consequences (although Una points out that the study cannot be considered unbiased, commissioned as it was by billionaire transwoman Jennifer Pritzker-- herself a former Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army). This doesn't seem to be the same study which Julia Baird mentions above. In any case, you can read the whole report here. Most recently, Chuck Hagel, the incumbent US Secretary of Defence, has recommended that the US policy of not allowing transgender people to serve should be reviewed.

Which countries allow people to transition and still serve? Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. (If you know of any others, please let me know). And of course, my home of New Zealand, which was, I am delighted to say, recently judged the most tolerant of LGBT servicemen and women in an international study (the Brits came joint second). Nonetheless, I suspect that, in general, the bar isn't set very high for this particular contest!

From my own perspective, it seems encouraging that one can survive a couple of decades of military service, and it doesn't grind out all your femininity, all your sensitivity, as many of the above people have shown.

In the grand scheme of things, this is all a very small problem. As far as I can judge, although Australia permits transition while serving, there seem to be only six people to whom this currently applies. And Wikipedia's list of transsexual or transgendered people who have served in the military is pitifully small. Nonetheless, for those few, it's a very big deal indeed, and (as with other areas) I suspect what we see is only the small tip of a very large iceberg.

For those still serving in painful silence, coming out and finally being true to themselves may call for another manifestation of the "big brave soldier".

My thanks to Melissa for drawing my attention to the New York Times article.

For my exclusive interview with Jan Hamilton, now Abigail Austen, click here.

Addendum: 14th September 2016

As of the 1st July 2016, the US has lifted its ban on transgender people serving openly in the military. The BBC carries the story here.


  1. Having served for "a couple of decades" myself in the US Navy I can assure you that the military is unable to "grind out all your femininity, all your sensitivity" but rather the military imbeds it deeper. I find that when I try to put aside all that haunts me, the haunts get larger and deeper imbedded. I talked to many young men, while I was serving, that were homosexuals and I didn't report them as they came to me in confidence.. They served proudly aside me and others in hazardous times and in peace times. That a person is in the proverbial closet doesn't mean they don't exist. I'm sure that many of the men I served with were probably wearing something feminine in their hearts as opposed to their bodies. Kristen Beck is a great example. I served with many of the Seal's and can't imagine anything occupying their minds other than mission at hand, and yet ... we have Kristen Beck.
    As to the question regarding the allowance of Transgendered to serve in the US Military .. although not completely negative, my thinking is still out to lunch on that one.

    1. Hi Janice,

      Thanks for giving your perspective. I can see how allowing trans people to continue to serve in the military would pose some potentially very difficult-to-solve problems. Not least, which accommodation to put them in.

      I think there needs to be a change in attitude, driven from the top down by good leadership, that being gay or trans doesn't automatically make you a less worthy soldier. (Mind you, Chelsea Manning hasn't done anyone any favours in this regard).

      I can only speak for myself, when I say I loathe violence. I detest guns and other weapons. The life of a combat soldier would be very close to a living hell for me. I am not saying that I couldn't be trained to be an effective combatant; but I am saying that the psychological effect on me would be devastating, and probably permanent. But, like I say above, that's not to say I couldn't usefully serve my country in ways other than shooting things.


    2. Your totaly right Janice.

      I served in the British Army through the 80`s and 90`s during the Gulf and Bosnia, Kosovo and made many tours to Northern Ireland.

      Even with all the training and work we do, the feminin side just hides away till the day she can pop out. I am so glad that Victoria survived my Military career,

      Even if I did try and be done with her by doing even more "Manly" things and courses. Back then I didn`t realise what and why I was like that, today I am grateful to her for being so pig headed and stubborn and not letting the squaddie destroy her.

      With out her I wouldn`t cope so well with my military past today.


    3. Thanks for posting Victoria. I will email your comment to Janice to make sure she gets it.


  2. To Victoria; - we, as do many others, have something in common. The desire to serve in our country's military services no matter what position it puts us in, and in so doing we serve twice. Both as a male and as a female. It's true we bury the feminine side to accomplish our missions at hand, but that same feminine side is the driving force to keep us sane. I sometimes think that while my comrades were decompressing, after a particular rough mission that they had only their own selves to deal with, while I had Janice. She was there to pull away the pains and memories which made me more alert and professional. My comrades didn't have a feminine side to help deal with the stresses. Perhaps that's why I am alive today and many of them aren't. I still remember them all but through Janice the pain is lessoned. I wish you the very best in your life as Victoria.
    Luvs .... Janice

  3. What was that song by the Chills again, on Flying Nun records? Never trust anyone in camouflage gear