Retired Navy SEAL Kristin Beck served 20 years in the military as Chris Beck. (Gannett)
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As the military begins to embrace gays and lesbians, one group feels left out: transgender troops.
These men and women weren’t even a blip on the nation’s radar until former Navy SEAL Team 6 member Chris Beck revealed in a memoir released last month that he had become Kristin Beck, a woman. It’s unknown how many transgender troops are serving in the U.S. military, largely because they’d get kicked out for coming out. About 700,000 Americans in a population of more than 300 million are transsexuals, according to a 2011 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.
Another milestone in June: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel seemed to sanction their service when he addressed a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride (LGBT) event at the Pentagon. But there was a catch: civilians can switch sexes and keep their defense jobs. Troops can’t. Unlike allies Great Britain, Israel and Canada, the U.S. military disqualifies transgender troops for health reasons.
“I was at the Pentagon when Secretary Hagel was saying we’re here to celebrate LGBT service,” says an Army sergeant who is becoming a man. The sergeant spoke on condition of anonymity to stay in the service.
“I’m kind of looking around for the rest of Ts,” the soldier says, referring to transgender troops. Other troops could celebrate marriage equality, the sergeant says, but not the transsexuals.
Transgender pride extends to Defense Department civilian employees such as Amanda Simpson, a senior Army official who was a man. Simpson, named to her post by President Obama, is the highest-ranking openly transgender official. She declined to comment for this story.
That pride stops with troops transitioning to the opposite sex.
For now, the Pentagon has no plans to cross that line, says Navy Lt. Cdr. Nathan Christensen, a spokesman. They’re medically disqualified, according to Pentagon regulations. Army regulations, for instance, prohibit transvestism.
Advocates for transgender people say the prohibition has no merit.
“We shouldn’t single out transgender individuals,” says Anne Speckhard, a psychologist who co-wrote Warrior Princess with Beck.
Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, a non-profit advocacy group in Washington, says all that should matter for the military is the ability to do the job.
Beck, in an interview, says the Pentagon should act soon to include transgender troops in its ranks or risk having the policy dictated by Congress or the courts.
“It should not be emotional,” she says. “It needs to be well thought out.”
Beck acknowledges that the transition to a woman involves “a lot of changes” physically and emotionally that would make it difficult to serve.
Beck suggests the military experiment with a pilot program that would give transgender troops a year to make the transition to the opposite sex. Their year of service, while under medical care, would be away from their home unit, perhaps at a military hospital. Once completed, troops would be committed to serving two more years of service to compensate for the cost.
Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, the New York Democrat who chairs the personnel panel on the Senate Armed Services Committee, believes transgender troops should be able to serve if they’re capable of completing their missions, says Glen Caplin, her spokesman.
Here are the stories of two soldiers currently serving while in transition to the opposite sex. They spoke on condition of anonymity so that they can keep their jobs. USA TODAY confirmed their identities through public records and another servicemember who is in contact with them.
Rejected by family
The sergeant attended the LGBT event.
The sergeant joined the Army Reserves as a lesbian. As a Southerner, a black woman and a member of the Baptist church, she kept her sexuality secret and her sense that she was a man buried even deeper. The sergeant’s age is “in the 20s,” declining to be more specific.
“I joined because I wanted to serve,” the sergeant says. “I didn’t think of gender or the sexual-identity piece. My father was a soldier. I wanted to come home in a uniform like him.”
After a deployment to Iraq in 2011, the sergeant decided it was time to become a man.
“I was ready to match my outward appearance with my inner being,” the sergeant says. “I wanted to start to transition. I knew that it was going to be a battle with my family and even my friends. But the worst came when I had to bypass my integrity — lie to my soldiers and not bring my whole self to work.”
The transition began with working out, eating differently, bulking up. Then, under medical supervision, the sergeant began taking synthetic testosterone, the male hormone. The sergeant plans to have a mastectomy to remove breast tissue but is uncertain about surgery to change genitals.
As a reservist, the sergeant has a civilian job and goes to work dressed as a man. For Army drills on weekends, the woman must emerge.
“It’s kind of a double life,” the sergeant says. “In my civilian life everyone just knows he, just him. I go in with my facial hair, and I’m just a guy. When I put the uniform on, I shave. The feminine voice comes out if I can. Whatever I can muster that’s feminine. That’s when the sergeant who’s supposed to be female comes out.”
The sergeant maintains femininity for physicals and has passed them as she has not had surgery. The sergeant has a girlfriend who is “fine with it,” though they do struggle sometimes.
“She’s straight,” the sergeant says. “We have a heterosexual relationship. She did not ask for any of this. It’s been a patient battle.”
For now, the fight to stay in the Army remains quiet. The sergeant hopes some day soon that the prohibition against transgender troops is lifted. For now, the soldiers rely on each other for support.
“Female to male, we have a band of brothers,” the sergeant says. “There’s at least 300 of us connected. We talk quite often to each other. We serve as battle buddies in a battle that nobody knows we’re fighting.”
Taking on challenges
The second soldier, a lieutenant colonel, is a combat veteran, 45, with a background in special operations. He reports for duty by day in a man’s uniform.
At night and on weekends: skirt, heels, makeup.
“I might be a 45-year-old guy mentally, if I choose to think like that,” the lieutenant colonel says. “But as a girl I’m like 16. Things I never learned as a little girl growing up that Mamma would have taught me in terms of all the feminine virtues.”
The choice is shattering the lieutenant colonel’s life. The lieutenant colonel is going through a divorce and has moved away from his children. Retirement from the Army looms in a few months. The lieutenant colonel acknowledges that his performance as an officer has suffered. Troops in transition might need to leave or take a break from service, the lieutenant colonel says. Once they’ve switched genders, they should be able to do the job.
“Three monstrous stresses: No. 1, transitioning from male to female,” the lieutenant colonel says. “No. 2, transitioning out of the military and wondering what I want to be when I grow up. I just never realized that that was housewife. The third, the divorce.”
How does the lieutenant colonel cope?
“I drink a lot.”
For years, the lieutenant colonel has repressed his femininity.
“I always felt uncomfortable in my body and I didn’t know why,” the lieutenant colonel says. “I was deathly afraid of being gay. That was the biggest sin you could have in my family. One thing that my dad hated more than anything. I was never allowed to have a G.I. Joe because my dad wouldn’t allow dolls in the house. I had no sisters. It was an all-male, all-the-time environment.”
Throughout his career, the lieutenant colonel chose the most physically demanding jobs and succeeded at them. He got married, had kids, deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lieutenant colonel considers himself a conservative and “constitutionalist” who viewed “don’t ask, don’t tell” as illegal and was pleased it was repealed.
Since February, the lieutenant colonel has been leaving his one-bedroom apartment dressed as a woman and has started to use a woman’s name.
The lieutenant colonel would like to lose his baritone, but surgery to lose his penis requires more thought.
He finds some solace in his new identity.
“I was always afraid that I was gay,” the lieutenant colonel says. “Now I know that I’m not. I’m a straight woman. That’s actually nice for me to feel. Not that there should be any stigma attached to any other set of gender identities or sexual preference. But I feel very comfortable that I’m a straight woman. Sits very well.”