Half a decade after the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender service members still felt reluctant to be open about their sexuality with their colleagues and chain of command, according to a study released in late May.
The study, published by the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy, found that 59 percent of respondents did not feel comfortable being out at work, either because of career repercussions or because of the burden of being a token responsible for educating their peers.
“Taken together, LGBT service members seek a military in which disclosure will not subject them to negative career repercussions, burden them with feelings of differentness or expectations to teach others how to treat them, limit their ability to access needed resources for themselves or their family, and, ultimately, that their physical and personal integrity will not be endangered,” the authors, both military and academic researchers, found.
Pentagon officials did not immediate respond to a request for comment about the study.
And despite a Monday Supreme Court decision which ruled that workplace discrimination against LBGT employees violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that decision does not include service members.
A Pentagon spokeswoman referred a request for comment to the Justice Department, as the ruling deals specifically with federal/civilian employment.
The study came out of interviews with 37 service members during 2016, at a time when Obama administration policy allowed transgender troops to take hormones as part of a transition, despite not allowing them to formalize a transition in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System.
“Most participants ... noted a reluctance to disclose their LGBT identity due to the fear that they could be negatively affected, despite repeal of anti-LGBT policies,” the study found. “These fears were not necessarily motivated by specific incidents, but rather a ‘sixth sense’ that it may not yet be safe to disclose LGBT identity in the military workplace.”
Despite the orders from above, many veterans publicly opposed the 2011 repeal of the ban on gay, lesbian and bisexual service members.
And for troops who had grown up in that environment, the policy’s demise did not flip a switch in terms of comfort level ― theirs or their colleagues. According to the study 42 percent of respondents felt that the organizations culture had not caught up to the policy.
“That was a fear of mine when I joined the military was yeah, they are allowing LGBT, well, LGB people to come in, but are they actually accepting of it or is it just them saying it because they have to, kind of thing?” one respondent, a lesbian airman, said in her interview.
And even if colleagues were largely tolerant, a culture that promotes uniformity was in itself not welcoming.
“I definitely felt more like I was swimming against the stream,” one respondent, a bisexual airman, said. “Like, in the military there’s this idea that you do not want to stand out at all, like you want to blend in with the walls. You want to seem like everyone else. You want to be like interchangeable with other people. You do not want to stand out because you do not want to be a candidate for punishment or just seen as having discrepancies about you.”
Indeed, despite the change in policy, some troops felt open hostility from leaders.
“The instructor was reported to use the pejorative term ‘fags’ during class, disclose other people’s sexual minority identity to his students without their permission, and communicate that he believed sexual minorities were more promiscuous than heterosexuals,” according the the study, based on a response from a gay soldier. “Classmates notably did not verbally protest the instructor’s behaviors, which may have contributed to the sense that the instructor’s beliefs, as opposed to the aggregate of students’ beliefs, were paramount in creating class climate.”
According to the study, 19 percent of LGBT troops were afraid of career consequences for being open about their identities. Though it was no longer an discharging offense, they feared bias could affect them more subltely.
"I do not want to screw myself before I even have that opportunity [to be promoted]. I’m in a position ...where I am about to be put on a board for major and I do not want to not even have that opportunity to put myself where they can easily be like, ‘Get rid of this guy; if we have to cut 55 percent of the officers up for it, he’s one of the easy ones we can just find a reason to just cover [ourselves],' " said one respondent, a gay Marine. “So I want to be smart about it. You cannot be a positive role model if you are not even there, if you just get tossed out.”
To navigate what one respondent compared to a mine field around and LGBT identity, service members looked for cues from their peers and leadership to help them figure out whether to disclose or not. According to the data, 32 percent of them had felt discouraged from being open, while 27 percent had seen signs that they should be.
“I had a few friends there [in training] that I got to know pretty well, but I knew a couple of them had some pretty strong religious backgrounds and I did not really feel like testing the waters at that point,” one respondent, a gay soldier, said. “I did not know where I was going, who I was going to be working with next, so just kind of kept my nose, again, to the grindstone and pushed through the training.”
Despite those concerns, 41 percent of respondents felt it was important to be open about their identities, either for their own wellbeing or to help others feel comfortable.
“When that Orlando attack happened, that was kind of a big deal. I’m like well, the best way to keep people from being homophobic is to have them have someone that they know and respect, who is gay,” one sailor said. “So, I have decided that it would be a conscious decision where I would actually mention that stuff in class, just sort of in passing, especially at this sort of hypermasculine culture at the [Naval] Academy.”
Others decided to keep their heads down and avoid rocking the boat.
“Obviously, I only told people who knew me already,” another sailor, a trans man, said. “But I made it very clear to them. I was like ‘I’m not trying to come out and be like a poster child for trans people’ because as amazing as that would be, I have a feeling that there will be some people who are not cool with it and they might try to kill me on my way to my car or some professor might not be cool with it and she’ll like flunk me or he’ll flunk me and I just do not got time for drama right now. Like, let me just try to get through this next tour.”
The trans question
In the summer of 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Defense Department would lift its ban on transgender troops serving openly and seeking treatment while in uniform, which set into motion transition policy and training for commanders with a July 1, 2017, deadline.
Three weeks later, President Trump tweeted his intention to reverse those decisions, reinstating the ban and formally closing the door in 2019.
Though Trump administration policy bars transgengender Americans from joining the military, it does not kick out those who are currently serving. As of April 2019, if they had not already begun or completed the transition to their identified gender, they have to serve according to their sex assigned at birth.
This year has seen some challenges to that policy. In May, the Navy granted a waiver to a female Navy lieutenant allowing her to remain uniform, despite being diagnosed with gender dysphoria in June 2019.
And on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the employers cannot discriminate against their homosexual or transgender employees.
"An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the decision. “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether that will extend to troops, as the issue of military readiness allows the services more leeway in deciding who is and isn’t fit for the job.
The Trump administration has argued that a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a type of anxiety that stems from a disconnect between a person’s identified gender and their physical body, constitutes a disqualifying mental health disorder.
The Supreme Court in January ruled that the miltiary’s transgender ban can stay in effect while lower courts hash out lawsuits that seek to overturn it.
Judges in both California and the District of Columbia will hear challenges to the ban later this year, and the case law handed down by Monday’s SCOTUS decision could work in favor of the plaintiffs.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.