Transgender Vets Featured In Arizona Daily Star
February 23rd, 2009
Transgender people are often referred to as the silent “T’s” of the LGBT community. But Tuscon, for whatever reason, is home to a very active and comparatively visible transgender community, with many of them making up the most enthusiastic roles of community service via the Wingspan LGBT community center and the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance (SAGA).
But despite all that, transgender people aren’t as visible in the general community as you might think. So it was such a pleasure to see Tucson’s hometown morning paper, the Arizona Daily Star, feature on its front page the first part of an amazing two-part series by military reporter Carol Ann Alaimo on the hidden lives of transgender military veterans. The first part provides a look in the lives of four veterans, three of whom transitioned to women and one who transitioned to a man. The second part today focuses on the inconsistent medical care these veterans face in the VA health care system.
This invisibility in the military is an especially important story because experts believe that the proportion of transgender people in the military is higher than that of the civilian population:
A study titled “Transsexuals in the Military: Flight Into Hypermasculinity” — a classic still cited in college texts on gender issues — was written in 1988 by Dr. George R. Brown, then an Air Force captain and psychiatrist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Brown found it curious that in a three-year period at the Midwestern base, he came across 11 men — eight current and former military, the rest civilians such as Defense Department staffers — all seeking treatment to become women.
Transsexuality is an issue “believed by many not to exist” in the armed forces, he noted. Yet each veteran told him nearly the same thing: He had enlisted hoping to “become a real man.”
A copy of Brown’s study from the prestigious Archives of Sexual Behavior is available on the Star’s web site (PDF: 676KB/11 pages). Brown’s findings on why transwomen might be attracted to the military was perhaps best illustrated by Erin Rus, one of the three women featured in the Sunday article:
Transgender people often sense their predicaments at a young age, Vanderleest said. That’s how it was for Russ, the former Army captain who has been living full time as a female since 2001. Even as a preschooler, she said, “I knew something was different about me.”
Joining the military was one action in a long list of things — playing football, becoming an Eagle Scout, getting married and becoming a father — that Russ hoped would still the inner sense of being born with the wrong anatomy. “You think if you do enough things of a male nature, then you will become male, and the female thoughts will go away.”
As with gay people, transgender people are barred from serving in the military. Erin’s military career came to a sudden end when she was pulled over for a routine traffic stop while dressed as a woman. The police officer wrote “a page long report on how I was dressed” and sent a copy to the military. The following Monday, Erin was called in to her commander’s office and threatened with a court-martial for conduct unbecoming of an officer. She was allowed to resign honorably.
That loss of talent in the military is a loss to the nation, as many of these vets typically served their country with distinction:
[Mick] Andoso, 51, retired in 1995 as a first sergeant. Back then, Andoso’s name was Master Sgt. Brenda Weichelt — who in 1994 was named one of the service’s top airmen for her work at the military’s Defense Language Institute in California.
Andoso still has a copy of an Air Force Sergeants Association magazine describing the award, and photos taken with the service’s top brass. Also among the keepsakes is a letter from Brenda’s last commander.
“You are among the few rare exceptions whose absolute dedication to duty, commitment to excellence and genuine concern for your service and your fellow airmen, set you so far apart that I can never forget your outstanding achievements,” it said.
The second part of the Star’s series goes more in depth on how the Veterans Administration deals with transgender veterans who come into the system for care. The U.S. bans transgender people from serving in the military, and that policy greatly influences the VA’s health care policies, where transgender vets are often denied treatments that experts say could help them most. (A few other countries, like Canada and Great Britain allow transgender people to serve, and will even pay for treatment, including sex-change surgery.)
Last June, the American Medical Association approved a new policy on the care of transgender patients, which calls gender-identity disorder a “serious medical condition … which causes intense emotional pain and suffering.” Untreated, it can lead to stress-related illness, depression and suicide. The AMA calls for all public and private medical providers to cover the cost of mental health care, hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery.
But the VA medical system does not conform to that policy. The National Department of Veterans Affairs specifically forbids VA hospitals from performing or paying for surgery, hormone treatments, psychotherapy, and other measures. Those policies are now under review.
The VA;s current policy also prohibits “any process or procedure involving genital identity revision,” an open phrase that is subject to wide interpretations from one VA hospital to the next or even one doctor to the next, resulting in huge disparities in patient treatment. Some hospitals have refused to treat transgender veterans for even routine medical conditions unrelated to their transgender status. VA hospitals in Tucson and Boston are seen as more generous in their treatments. Boston’s VA hospital even has a memo which specifies their policy on treating transgender vets (PDF: 176KB/5 pages), the only VA hospital to do so.
But even in Tucson’s relatively generous VA hospital, treatment can be uneven. Mick Andoso is happy with his care at the Tucson VA hospital, but others continue to experience problems:
[Diane] Steen, on the other hand, said she was denied hormone therapy at the local VA as she prepared for her privately obtained sex-change surgery. That forced her to find an outside doctor and cover the cost herself. “It all depends what doctor you get,” Steen said of VA care.
Erin Russ of Tucson, a former Army officer who is transgender and a VA patient, agreed. Tucson VA staffers “are mostly accepting. But there are a few who basically hold the line that we are crazy, and they refuse to deal with us on any other basis,” said Russ, who teaches transgender awareness workshops at Wingspan, the local gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender resource center.
Advocates for transgender veterans are working to change that policy soon.