"They did not see us. We made sure they didn’t.": Transgender individuals continue the struggle against possible military ban, healthcare complications
This article is the first part of a larger piece dedicated to the experiences of some transgender individuals. Check michigandaily.com for the second part coming up.
It was 1974; Charin Davenport was 18 when she joined the military.
Despite opposing the Vietnam War, the teenager from Essexville, Mich., had many reasons for wanting to join the Navy. A need to give back to the country was one; there was also the desire to have more experiences outside of the town.
“I really wanted to see the world,” she said. “And I did. Another part of it was I had to get out of there. Because there was no future, short-term or long-term for me there.”
She also thought that joining the military would help her feel like more of the gender she was assigned to.
“I thought at that age … the problem was that I wasn’t a good enough man,” the now 61-year-old Oakland University professor said. “And that the Navy would help me become that man, that would kind of man me up. And I talked to a lot of veterans who felt the same way. Because it’s kind of that hyper-masculine environment. And so, in that environment, surely I would become the man I was suppose to be and I so far failed at.”
Davenport was in the military for seven years. While she was not out in the military, she was aware of several of her fellow officers who were also trans.
“I was not out when I served,” she said. “That would have been a death sentence. The secrecy between ourselves was far beyond any top-secret clearance the military could have had. They did not know us. They did not see us. We made sure they didn’t.”
The reception of returning Vietnam and Korean soldiers was a national shame, Davenport explained, since they were not treated with respect and often left with few facilities. With all of the debate, the presidents at the time would at least be on the side of the troops.
Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump proposed a possible ban on transgender troops.
“On that day, the President of the United States Donald Trump spit on us," she said. "And said, 'No no no you’re right, spit on them.' And to me, that is absolutely despicable. And I was so angry. So hurt. And I will never stop saying that. I’m angry. So angry about it.”
“I hate war, let me be very clear about that,” she said. “But we can never lose that bond. We cannot lose that bond. And Donald Trump, our president that we elected in this country, basically told us to fuck off.”
“I will never feel any differently about what he did,” she said. “Analyze all you want — there is no analysis to be made. That’s what happened.”
The military ban
Davenport is one of the approximate 134,300 retired transgender veterans who have served in the U.S. military — a number that is difficult to pinpoint as the ban on transgender individuals was lifted just last year under the Obama administration. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy regarding sexual orientation, was discontinued in 2011, but repeal did not extend to gender identity — transgender individuals were deemed to have a “psychosexual disorder.”
The University of California, Los Angeles report now estimates about 15,500 members are still on active duty. The U.S. military is often called the largest employer of transgender individuals in the world — Davenport estimates about 20 to 25 percent of the adult transgender community has served.
On July 26th, President Donald Trump sent out a series of tweets proposing a possible ban on transgender individuals from serving the military on the basis of high health care costs.
....Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming.....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
....victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
The move faced negative reactions from the Democrats and mixed reactions from the Republicans. The U.S. joint chiefs of staff were not aware the tweets were about to be made. As of Wednesday, five active duty transgender individuals are suing Trump.
In Michigan, Democratic delegates also called the move “discriminatory,” while many Republican delegates have yet to comment.
There is no room for discrimination in our military. President should focus on plans to address threats from N. Korea & Russian aggression
— Senator Gary Peters (@SenGaryPeters) July 26, 2017
In Royal Oak, Samantha Rogers, founder of transgender organization TG Detroit, held a rally in support of the troops in response to Trump’s tweet. With 400 people in attendance and no counterprotesters, Rogers said it was a great turnout as the mayor and ex-mayor of Royal Oak spoke to the protestors and transgender veterans as well.
Rogers said she was told that it was the largest transgender-driven rally in Southeast Michigan.
“Frankly I was disappointed we didn't have more people because of the nature of the situation,” she said.
Lilianna Angel Reyes, Trans Sistas of Color Project founder, said while she stands with her transgender brothers and sisters in the military, she wanted to emphasize that the publicity the issue has received has been largely in conjunction with only the white transgender community.
“There technically hasn’t been a policy change for banning trans people in the military, it was Twitter,” she said. “It may be coming, but it hasn’t been official policy. But when people thought it was the possibility of a policy, they rallied. When different things are going on in the trans community on a larger level, they rally — by they, I mean mostly white trans people.”
According to Reyes, 16 transgender women of color were killed in Detroit for the first six months this year but have received little rally or support. Transgender women of color are also punished with heavy prison sentences, she said.
“So I think that it is very difficult — race always plays a part,” she said. “Racism is always alive.
Reyes noted many transgender white people transition later in life — after they have had careers, stable jobs and homes. She said their transition — though still very impactful — is much different than that of a transgender person of color who transitions at 14 or 15, who could become homeless or have to partake in sex work.
“Many of my trans brothers and sisters who are of color, who transitioned at 15 and 16, couldn’t have even went into the military when they were 18 because they were noticeably trans,” she said. “They had already started their transition, and at that point they could very well push you out of the military and not let you go in. Many of the people who are trans veterans were not outwardly trans when they were serving. They were mostly men who were serving and although they were trans, in their spirit, in their body, in their mind, they weren’t outwardly transitioning, they hadn’t really started that process.”
Reyes noted, as a result of racism, many people of color in general experience petty crimes more than white people, and with criminal histories, they cannot enter the military in the first place.
Students on the University of Michigan campus also reacted negatively to the news. LGBT Michigan President Emily Kaufman, an LSA senior and a transgender woman, said Trump's actions create a culture of discrimination.
“Now the conservative people on Fox News are talking about trans people, and they’re saying the military is not a social experiment,” she said. “When their ignorant viewers are watching and being brainwashed by them, they think that’s the gospel truth."
Kaufman said the ban would have a considerable impact on employment.
"It will increase unemployment for trans people — the ones that are serving, if they get kicked out … The unemployment rate is already extremely high, because it’s legal to discriminate against trans people in most states in employment.”
She compared the abrupt proposal of the ban and its repercussions to the Trump administration’s guidance on transgender bathroom choice in February — forcing transgender people to use the bathroom of the assigned birth gender. She said such discrimination appears to be becoming a trend — something that is unacceptable.
“By Trump doing this, it just sort of adds to the stereotypes about trans people not being fully human and it creates lots of problems,” she said. “I think saying or doing one thing — like with the bathroom bill — that’s bad enough. It’s starting to be a trend — and this is just out of the blue, he didn’t even discuss it with anyone. It really is just dehumanizing trans people by saying that.”
Public Policy senior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, wrote in a message that the comments were “disturbing.”
“These Americans are voluntarily risking their lives for our country,” she wrote. “Sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination should not be tolerated anywhere, including in the military.”
LSA junior Amanda Delekta wrote in an email the proposed ban was based on financial grounds. Delekta, the vice president of internal affairs for the University chapter of College Republicans, spoke on her own behalf rather than the organization’s.
She wrote if the costs are addressed, the potential military ban should not exist.
“With unstable nations like North Korea posing national security threats to America and our allies the military needs to be prudent with how they chose to spend their resources,” she wrote. “I recently saw a statistic that claimed the military currently spends more on Viagra than it would spend on hormones for transgender people which I also think is an superfluous extraneous expense the military could be spending more wisely.”
However, Davenport said the health care costs for transgender individuals are often exaggerated or misunderstood.
According to medical news outlet Stat News, the costs for gender reassignment surgeries would be minimal, between $2.4 million and $8.4 million each year — an increase of 0.04 to 0.13 percent in total health care expenditures.
Davenport said training a personnel costs a lot of money, so to write off a possible member who is transgender would cost even more money for the military. It is also, she argued, a small expense as compared to the other vast costs of the United States military — and worth it, for the lives it can benefit.
“The medical treatment that we receive is not just a convenience, a ‘Oh, I think I’m going to do this,’ ” she said. “Health care for transgender people saves lives. When a trans person is denied health, they are essentially told, ‘We don't exist.’ That our health doesn't matter, that our lives don't matter.”
There are no laws protecting transgender individuals on healthcare or other matters, Davenport said, but the Affordable Care Act in 2012 required providers to aid their clients with medical treatment. Currently, Medicaid and Medicare are required to help their transgender clients, she explained.
With regard to health care, Reyes highlighted the push for coverage for all people, not just transgender people, under the Obama administration — allowing people to be healthy holistically and get access to services they didn’t have before.
She said, however, a lot of health providers were not familiar with transgender health needs. She works with the organization Affirmations to improve such facilities and said a lot of health systems have improved their services for LGBTQ care.
“So we’ve been working with a lot of health systems that’ve made great strides to do sensitivity training, to work with frontline staff, with doctors, with federally qualified health centers, with hospitals, larger health systems, with insurance agencies, so that they understand there’s a specific need for LGBT people, so space in those spaces that they have historically been pushed out of,” she said.
Recently, though, Reyes said she feels too much emphasis has been put on the Trump administration’s health care views. She noted state governors and regional leaders dictate health care accessibility on a more local level and can push back against the federal guidelines; but, she said, when all states and municipalities believe healthcare should be restricted, consistent with the plans the presidential administration is putting forth, the situation becomes scary.
“Anyone who currently has health care that didn’t have healthcare, and the thought of taking it away, is going to be scary for anyone, especially people who are on medication that they need,” she said. “For trans people who wish to be on medicines or for people on diabetes (medication) or for people who are taking any medication that they have access to that they haven’t historically, the thought of it getting taken away causes a lot of panic.”
Reyes said at the time she was transitioning, there were more “gates” to transitioning and there was more of a psychological, mental stigma at play.
“In order for people to get any kind of hormone therapy, or any of that stuff, you had to go through so many hoops that most people of color, most trans people who didn’t have money, could not do, so I had to navigate that,” she said. “I was from a smaller town in Saginaw and I had to really navigate — see what that looked like. There were no local providers during that time. There are some, a little bit more now, in Saginaw and Flint, but there were none. There was like one or two in Detroit at that point, but they took specific health insurances that I didn’t have, so I had to find local doctors, I had to self-administer hormones that I got from the internet.”
She now sees a doctor who is focused on transgender care. While doctors are more understanding now than they used to be, Reyes said transgender people still have to go through “mental hoops” in order to complete their transition — the only group that has to do so in surgical circumstances.
“There’s still the thought that you have to have all these years of therapy and go through all of these hoops in order to be you,” she said. “If you think about that almost nobody else in society has to go through that to authentically be you … A cisgender woman can go in and get breast implants that are triple J — which are clearly unhealthy — but you don’t have to go through mental health therapy. You just have to go to a surgeon that’s willing to do it, and there are plenty.”
Given the oppression surrounding transgender people in society and in the medical world, Reyes said transgender people learn to “navigate the system.” She said scary things can happen when people self-administer hormones, which they have to do if they do not have other means to acquire them.
“I am a U of M alum, but it really is disheartening to try and go through their system, because I did, and I did not want to go through it because of the ridiculousness,” she said. “You find other ways to do it, and sometimes they’re not always the healthiest ways, but you get what you need.”
Rogers said she and others in the LGBTQ community were holding their breath to hear news from the Trump administration in regards to insurance providers. She emphasized that transgender people are not bound to a party — some are Republican, some have transitioned later in life and can comfortably survive if certain laws or bans were passed.
“The right wing, generally, has been no friend to LGBT rights,” she said, referring to Vice President Mike Pence, who has faced criticism for his rhetoric and views.
Rogers added science has helped the transgender community greatly — especially in informing people that being transgender is a mental “condition,” not a disorder.
“It’s not a perversion,” she said. “I guarantee when you walk through the world, you cross (transgender people) all the time without even knowing it. There’s a lot of us out there.”
Rogers is currently covered under Blue Cross, Blue Shield insurance, which provides her services. She goes to the University’s hospitals, and so far has had a good experience; however, she has heard stories from friends who were turned away from other plastic surgeons on a religious basis.
Davenport’s experience at the University hospital and VA Ann Arbor Health Care System was a positive one, but she had trouble at the John D. Dingell VA in Detroit, which she said were lacking LGBTQ services. While the nurses and staff were understanding, Davenport said, there was no transgender liaison at the administrative level. Staff did not know how to help her with hormones and often came to her to talk about her experiences.
“I was kind of an oddity,” she said. “They treated me as a woman but I had to pull them along.”
Kaufman said the the biggest things the medical world can do are not discriminate against transgender people, as well as cover transgender services in healthcare and have medical knowledge about transgender health.
“My surgery wasn’t covered,” she said. “I’m from Delaware; the state was in the process of making the policy after I scheduled my surgery. I think it might be implemented (now), but I don’t know. (With) some states and some insurers it’s covered, but most don’t (cover it). It’s a real financial burden, so unless there’s a policy that’s created to protect trans people in the health care market, they will be discriminated against and have to pay obscene amounts of money to get necessary services.”
Kaufman said she has friends who are transgender across the country and most of them have not had surgery because they cannot afford it.
She also added she believes health care providers should be made more aware of transgender health issues. She said she went to a gynecologist who had no understanding of her gender confirmation surgery.
“I had to explain to her how my vagina was created,” she said. “That’s not okay for trans people to teach health care providers, and it’s something that almost all trans people have had to do.”
Another problem that the community faces is the lack of recognition from the U.S. Census Bureau — there is no official documentation of transgender people in the United States. Because of this, Davenport said, policymakers cannot use that data or tailor it to programs or facilities.
Davenport said there is an undiscussed problem of retirement homes, where nurses and staff members would not know how to approach transgender patients. For example, she said, if a transgender person did not have their "bottom surgery" done, she fears it would prompt the staff to treat a transwoman as a man. If one did go through the surgery, the staff would need to learn how to dilate the vagina and monitor their hormone levels.
“Right now, senior living centers are not prepared to do that,” she said. “What is going to happen to a million transgender senior citizens that nobody knows what to do with? Because they are not measured in the census? They are never going to see us coming. It’s a catastrophe.”
While visibility is important, Davenport said she believed it is not enough. After the Obama administration, Davenport said many activists wanted to focus on race within the transgender community or preventing authorities from sending transgender individuals to the incorrect prison. The change in the administration — and its values — has left a setback, Davenport said.
“It’s almost as if we have to regain the ground that we already thought we had,” she said. “And that is so disheartening. So exhausting. But we are relentless now.”
Dylan LaCroix contributed to this article.