Last June, the US Department of Defense officially announced it would allow transgender soldiers to join the military — five years after voiding the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy that, up until then, forbid gays and lesbians from serving uncloseted.
If a few high profile cases — like the fascinating story of Christine Jorgensen , a former GI who became the first ‘celebrity’ trans woman in 1950s’ America, or Chelsea Manning’s widely covered sex change — make it seem like transgenderism in the military is a relatively isolated phenomenon, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
It may seem counterintuitive, but newly available evidence suggests that transgender people are actually twice more likely to serve in the armed forced than their “cisgender” counterparts. And given that the US Army is the country’s largest employer, by that measure it is likely THE single largest employer of transgender people in the United States.
How is that possible?
Accurate figures of the number of transgender people in active duty are hard to come by. That’s not only because data collection did not officially begin until June 30th of this year, but because estimating the size of the American transgender population, in and of itself, is notoriously a hot mess.
Doing so hinges on a number of factors. For one, the US Census Bureau doesn’t collect data on gender identity. And even if it did, the data might not be reliable as it is self-reported and many people still refrain from coming out as “non-binary” on official registries for fear of prejudice or discrimination.
For that reason, there are no precise figures on the number of transgender service members. Still, rough estimates suggest that the rates of trans Americans in service are well above the national average .
In 2014 for instance, a study conducted by the highly respected Williams Institute — a policy research institute focused on LGBTQ issues — estimates that nearly 150,000 transgender individuals — 0.6% of the adult population — have served or are currently on active duty in the U.S. armed forces. A more recent study (from 2016) by the RAND Corporation similarly estimates the number of transgender personnel in active duty to be between 1,320 and 6,630 — out of 1.3 million in total — and between 800 to 4,000 in the selected reserves.
Given the latest estimate of the U.S. trans population — about 1.4 million adults as of June — this means that roughly 11%, or one in nine transgender Americans have served or are currently serving in the military. Contrast that with the average service rate (including both active soldiers and veterans) of 7.3 % of US citizens, and we can safely conclude that transgender people are roughly twice as likely to join the Armed Forces.
Why are trans people more likely to serve?
People enlist for a myriad of reasons, so there probably isn’t one straightforward answer to this question. However, there are several possible explanations.
The military is a male-dominated environment, where toughness, discipline and hypermasculinity predominate. It’s not exactly the first place you’d expect someone struggling with their gender identity to flock to. But paradoxically, for a lot of transgender people who may be facing abuse or rejection at home, the armed forces could be a safe hiding place; a refuge even — offering them financial security, health benefits, dignity and a sense of kinship — in a society that disproportionately denies them all these things.
Transgender men and women are ten times more likely to attempt suicide than the average adult, and are more prone to verbal, physical abuse and employment discrimination than any other groups in the U.S. Ben Christopher at Priceonomics notes that donning a military uniform can also function as a form of gender camouflage — a way to thwart any suspicions from family members or friends, and fend off their own complicated desires and thoughts about wanting to transition.
As Chelsea Manning confessed from her prison cell in an interview to Cosmopolitan: “I spent a lot of time denying the idea that I could be gay or trans to myself. I ran away mentally […] but it’s absolutely a factor in the decisions that I made before and including when I enlisted in the Army.”