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The Forgotten Veterans

by Monica F. Helms
President of
Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA)

Diving Officer, bring ship to periscope depth."

"Bring ship to periscope depth, Diving Officer, aye."

"Prepare to fire tubes One and Four."

"Tubes One and Four ready."

"Fire!"

"Torpedoes away. Running hot, straight and normal."

That scene did not come from a WWII submarine movie but from my memory when we did torpedo tests in the Pacific. At the time, I was stationed on the USS Flasher (SSN 613,) a nuclear-powered submarine. I am a Navy veteran and I am also a transgender person.

A few years back, a reporter from the Sacramento Bee wrote a scathing article about a small veterans memorial in front of the California State Capital Building dedicated to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender veterans. In his article, he stated something to the effect that the term "transgender veterans" was an "oxymoron." He must have assumed that transgender people are born with something that exposes their situation to the rest of the world, so they could never join the military. Everyone would know they are a transgender person. Not so.

In reality, most people having a gender identity issue are not fully aware of it until much later in life, long after they have passed the earliest age of which one can join the military. Other male-to-female transgender people who are aware of their situation early on may join to prove their manhood, or for female-to-male transgender people, to do a job just like any other man does. During the Vietnam War, some joined and volunteered to fight in-country because they felt the Viet Cong could take care of their "problem" for them.

Like gay, lesbian and bisexual people, it would be safe to assume that transgender people have also served in every war this country has fought. Web site http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/femvets.html chronicles just a few of the women who fought as men in the Revolutionary War. On web site http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/femvets3.html you can read about Lucy Brewer who served as a male sailor on Old Ironsides under the name of George Baker during the War of 1812. At web site http://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/femvets2.html you can read about women who fought in the Civil War as men. Their identities remained a secret until the day they died. And, on web site http://www.majorcox.com/columns/buffalo.htm it talks about Cathay Williams, an African-American woman who became William Cathay and served as a Buffalo Soldier in 1866.

These are just the stories of the women who lived as men and fought for their country. In the 20th Century wars, inductees into the military had to take a physical before they could get in. This cut back on women serving as men. However, many women served as nurses, putting them in the line of fire, which some of them may have looked forward to doing in order to make up for not fighting alongside the men.

When the country initiated the draft, men who felt as if they should have been born a woman fought right next to non-transgender soldiers and sailors. The most famous WWII transgender veteran was without a doubt Christine Jorgensen. Even though doctors had started doing sex-change operations in the 1930s, Christine made the procedure well-known when she came back from Denmark in 1952, right after her operation. She became such big news that she knocked the first H-bomb test right off the front page.

These days, with the Internet and high-speed communications, transgender veterans have come together in groups and organizations, the most notable being the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA,) located at www.tavausa.org. TAVA has members across the country who fit all aspects transgender and intersexed people. The organization has veterans who have served as far back as WWII and every war afterwards. One member who recently served in Iraq would E-mail the TAVA group list on her exploits. She recently came home to begin her transition from male to female.

It is estimated that the number of transgender and intersex people in the population is between .5 to 2 percent. This includes any person who crosses the gender lines either on a permanent or temporary basis, such as transsexuals, drag kings and queens, crossdressers and other gender queer people. The number of military people who have served in all the wars is about 48 million, which would mean that the number of transgender people who would have served in the military could be between 240,000 and 960,000 since the Revolutionary War. Today, there are about 24.5 million veterans still living in America. By keeping the same figures of from .5 to 2 percent, this would mean that there are from 122,500 to 490,000 transgender veterans living today.

Given all the information that indicates transgender people have served this country in every war, it still amazes me on how easily our service is forgotten by gay, lesbian and bisexual people, especially around Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day. During these patriotic holidays, news items come out about the Donít Ask, Donít Tell law and how it needs to be repealed. Since the law has the intent of dealing with homosexual behavior in the military, people forget that as far as the military is concern, anyone with a gender identity issue is also consider a homosexual. Because of this, several transgender people have already been discharged under Don't Ask Don't Tell. Many GLB people forget this when talking about lifting the ban, so they do not include their transgender brothers and sisters in their thinking.

Transgender people have served this country proudly. They have received every medal this country has given to its military personnel, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. They have been in every war and are serving today. They died for freedom, they became wounded for freedom and they came home with mental and physical problems, all because they fought for freedom. They need to be remembered, all the time and every time gay, lesbian and bisexual veterans are mentioned. Let us not forget any veteran and treat all of them with the respect they deserve. And, let us not forget the transgender veterans. We also served proudly.