The Defense Department needs transgender service members


Bryan Bree Fram is a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and a board member of SPART*A. The views are their own and do not reflect those of the Air Force or the Defense Department.

The guests who attend the State of the Union show us a vibrant cross-section of the country. Among the guests this year: a number of transgender members of the armed services. Their presence is a reminder that the military is in danger of losing talented people, through a policy of the Defense Department’s own devising.

The d epartment insists that its planned transgender policy isn’t a ban. Its reasoning? The new rules allow transgender people who don’t transition with hormone replacement therapy or surgery to serve “in their biological sex.” This is a dodge that puts service members in an impossible position and denies the military the full talents of people who want to serve. I know from painful experience. I’m one of the examples that Defense Department officials can hold up to insist that they aren’t trying to kick us out.

I came out publicly as transgender, with the incredible support of my commanders and colleagues at the Pentagon, on the day then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced open service. Since then, I’ve been promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in a command position, where it has been the honor of my career to lead some of the Air Force’s best and brightest.

I’ve also represented thousands of transgender service members before senior leadership at the Defense Department, members of Congress and the public. Sharing their honorable and distinguished service has been a joy, because it shows how eliminating the ban improved their performance. Not only were they no longer sacrificing their integrity, but also being authentic and getting the care deemed necessary by their doctors allowed them to flourish.

The new policy that determines our continued ability to serve is very similar to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That policy allowed lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals to serve as long as they did not act on their sexual orientation. Both policies do irreparable harm. There are many transgender people in the military who haven’t come out yet or haven’t transitioned because they face very real threats of physical violence or harm to their careers.

To explain why some transgender people need medical care and some don’t, consider this close, but imperfect, analogy: Being transgender is similar to monitoring your cholesterol. If it gets to a certain threshold, you and your doctor may decide to treat it. If it gets to a higher level, or you have some sort of critical issue such as a heart attack, you must treat it immediately or significant harm, including death, is very likely. Gender is sort of the same way; there’s a threshold to transition. There are many factors that can keep some people back, but if they hit that threshold, it’s time. Some people were past it before they could even express themselves, others not until late in life, and some never get there.

At this time, my medical team and I don’t believe that to live authentically I currently need the specific kinds of care that the Defense Department would take to mean that I have transitioned. But that could change. And if I hit that threshold where additional care became necessary, under the new policy I would immediately be ineligible for service, even though it would have no bearing on my capacity or capability to serve.

And even before that point, the Defense Department’s policy has serious implications for people like me. Within the transgender community, there’s often a strong sense of stigma around “not being trans enough,” and I feel it as a non-binary member; it’s my challenge to deal with this form of impostor syndrome. It’s also a strategy pushed from the outside to divide us, while unfortunately being pushed internally because it lets some people feel superior to others.

Having my service weaponized as an excuse to prevent other service members from thriving is devastating, and not simply because it uses me against other members of the transgender community. A huge part of the military ethos is to leave no one behind, but this policy could lead to a double abandonment. It leaves people like me in the military without my colleagues, and it risks forcing talented people out of the careers where they have so much to give.

Though the new policy allows those who have begun transition since June 2016 to continue serving, it contains an insidious clause that allows the Defense Department to end their service “should its decision to exempt these service members be used by a court as a basis for invalidating the entire policy.” As the policy stands, we not only are explicitly denying this country the opportunity to recruit some of our best brainpower but also are setting ourselves up to lose those currently serving in whom we have invested so much. That’s not right. It brutalizes me to think that my 16 years of service as a transgender person could be the fig leaf that allows the Supreme Court to decide that discrimination is constitutional.