honoring transgender veterans

I had the honor of sitting down with Carla Lewis to discuss transgender veterans and active service members of the military. If you don’t recognize her name, you may know of her picture that went viral on the internet, and her t-shirt that said, “Transgender Veteran: I fought for your right to hate me.”

Hi Carla, if you could give our readers a brief introduction to yourself please.

I’m a 44 year old father of two and grandmother of three. That sounds kind of odd, but I’m proud to be the “father” of my two children. I’m happily married to the love of my life, Jaime, who is a post-operative transsexual. The road to me becoming an activist spans more than a decade and each time I tried to steer away from that course some event has always pulled me back in.

My research has shown very sparse information available about transgender veterans or currently serving service members. 2015 estimates quote numbers of 134,000 trans veterans, and 15,000 currently serving despite numerous risks. What are your thoughts?

The only information I’ve read was the report from the Williams Institute. I believe it focused more on male to female transgender soldiers, but the one statistic that stood out in my mind was that transgender people are twice as likely to volunteer for the armed services than their cisgender counterparts.

Over the years, I’ve had the occasion to speak with many transgender veterans. Most come out after they’ve left the service. I’ve never actually met or spoken with another soldier that was discharged specifically for being transgender. I’m sure they are out there, but I haven’t found them.

In the U.S., there is still not an allowance for transgender service members to either serve openly or transition while serving. Any thoughts on this point?

I do believe it is coming. However, I also believe it will need to occur before the next election cycle. There is always a chance that even more radical representatives will be in power and try to block the Department of Defence from allow trans soldiers to openly serve.

That being said, I am encouraged by the Navy and Army policies that currently allow a transgender soldier to serve openly if there is no other compelling reason to discharge them. At least that is my understanding.

I see from my research that Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, and, New Zealand have policies allowing transgender service members to continue their service. But, I have seen stories here in Canada that once they come out, their career stalls, no more promotions, and many face censure or violence because of their trans status. What are your thoughts?

I do have one friend that is in the service in Canada. She has relayed to me that service did become difficult once she came out and where once she looked forward to a long career, now she is waiting to get out.

This behaviour is unacceptable, but expected with the overwhelming male bravado that must exist in armed forces around the world. I believe that in the United States, once transgender people are allowed to serve openly there will be a lot of obstacles to overcome. Many stereotypes will need to be shattered and I believe our transgender soldiers will have to go above and beyond to prove their worth.

Very true.

I first became aware of your picture when my best friend shared it recently, and she stated about her own service, “Eight Years, 3 Combat Tours, Several Medals, 2 Branches of the Service and I was honorably discharged. Do you have something to say to me now, internet troll?”

Do you have any words for her?

She can rest in the knowledge that even though her contributions aren’t respected by many, she did make a difference for those same people whether directly or indirectly.

The most opposition I’ve received to my image floating around are in two camps: soldiers do not “fight” for rights and soldiers are nothing but corporate shills fighting to line the pockets of government contractors and Wall Street.

I believe with few exceptions that when a soldier enlists or accepts a commission there is a certain amount of altruism that goes into their decision making. That act of altruism should never be diminished because of the mission the soldier is assigned to.

Here in the United States, our Oath of Enlistment states clearly that first and foremost we will defend the Constitution not the land, not the people. “I, Carla Lewis, do solemnly swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America…”

There is no expiration date on this oath either. That is why, to this day, I still fight for equality…because I swore an oath to do so in 1990.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we pause, around the globe, to honor the memories of those veterans who served and to thank those who are currently serving.

What message do you have for those who pause in remembrance?

As a child, before cynicism and partisanship take root, we all have a dream or aspiration on how we will fit into society.

Many choose, for one reason or another, a life in service to their fellow citizens. They do so knowing that their life may one day be forfeit, but they do so graciously so that others may benefit from their sacrifice

A soldier that is transgender gives no less than the soldier that is not. Their talent and experience should not be tossed aside because they’re different.

If our government could do one thing for gay and transgender soldiers that have been discharged in the past simply for being gay or transgender, it would be to have their discharge characterization elevated to Honorable if they were discharged under conditions other than honorable. I would also ask that derogatory information be removed from their DD-214, separation form.

For instance, mine states “Conditions that interfere with military service. MENTAL DISORDERS – not disability.”

Knowing I’ve had to show this form to every potential employer for the last 25 years greatly diminished the number of job prospects I had available to me.

In addition, soldiers that would otherwise qualify for health care through the Veterans Administration can not receive it because of the characterization of their discharge.

For the transgender vet, they must overcome showing discharge papers to a potential employer that states derogatory information and they must fend for themselves when it come to health care.

The soldier, regardless of their economic station or belief system, joined because they loved their country and believed it was worth defending.

I believe this as well.

Any last thoughts Carla?

Our military, our government, and even our country does not always have its priorities right. However, this should never diminish the willingness or the effort of each member of our armed services. We should never throw away a good resource like a transgender soldier simply because they are not yet fully understood.

As well, you may want to read a blog post I made in 2010 in which I share my feelings about my own discharge.

Thank you Carla for taking the time to sit down with me. On a personal note, I am proud of you and honored to know you. Thank you for all that you do.

Thank you for the opportunity!

When you pause to remember on November 11th, please remember our transgender veterans. They not only fought for their country and its citizens, they also have been fighting to be allowed to be who they truly are.

I dedicate this to Carla, Rachel, Michelle, and Erin, all dear friends and transgender veterans. I am truly honored to know them, and I will always stand for them to receive the rights and recognition they truly deserve.

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Christine Newman is a proud transgender woman in Toronto. She is an activist and advocate with 33 years experience, a writer, lecturer, and artist. She is also a columnist for Gender Fabulous! Magazine, Living Toronto Journal, and INspired Media.