Transsexuals are seeing an opportunity to use the same political capital used by gay rights activists in order to fight to allow them to serve openly as transgendered people. The move is striking much controversy, leaving many questions on how such individuals would be classified and in what unit they would find themselves. It is likely to bring a battle to the military, but the social stigma and operational questions that are raised leave it to be questioned as to whether it should happen and whether it ever will.
Jacob Eleazer, a 28-year-old TAC (Teach, Assess, Council) officer, learned he was up for promotion this December. For seven years, he’d been an exemplary soldier, rising to the rank of first lieutenant, and now on his way to captain. But there was a problem. Within the confines of his military training center, in western Kentucky, Eleazer still went by his birth name, which was female.
Outside his Army base, Eleazer lived as a man, one of 15,450 military personnel who consider themselves transgender, according to a recently released study, but don’t dare come out to their fellow soldiers and risk jeopardizing their careers.
“My colleagues just assumed I was a really butch lesbian,” says Eleazer, who has broad shoulders, close-cropped hair and a jutting chin.
Like Chelsea Manning, the former Army private who gave classified documents to WikiLeaks when she was known as Bradley Manning, Eleazer hadn’t identified with his gender since puberty. Yet he believed that undergoing any kind of anatomical change was unrealistic—too many complications—and so for years he lived as a lesbian. But in 2011 he decided he couldn’t abide the dissonance any longer. He soon came out to his friends and family, who were supportive, and for the last two years, he has lived as Jacob. But he only recently resolved to surgically modify his gender.
Not all transgender men and women in the military, however, wish to make such a transition. So as long as they are quiet, their secret is safe, but any major medical procedure must be reported to the military. And just when Eleazer learned he was up for a promotion, he also learned that a doctor could remove his breasts. If he passed on the operation, another opening in the doctor’s schedule might not present itself for a while.
Eleazer understood the risks.
“The hardest thing,” he says, “was deciding whether to transition or stay in the military. I identify very much as a soldier.”
For decades, transgender men and women have been barred from serving in the military. The rule is rooted in an archaic theory that equated being transgender with having a mental disorder. Four years after Congress repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, activists have been agitating for change, and point to other nations, like Israel and England, which allow transgender military personnel. Last week, an independent commission, led by a former U.S. surgeon general, released a study confirming what psychiatric doctors have known for years: “There is no compelling medical reason for the ban,” as the report states, and it has no legitimate basis. The commission called on President Obama to overturn it immediately.