Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Most civilians might assume that the 2011 repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" brought to an end the days of LGBT service members being unceremoniously bounced from the armed forces and often stripped of their uniform, hard-won ranks and benefits.
While that's true these days for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members, there is still the issue of the dangling T in LGBT. The repeal of DADT did nothing to protect transgender soldiers, sailors and airmen. Right now, in every branch of the service other than the Army (which takes each transgender service member's case under individual review by high-level brass), any service member who comes out as or who is found to be transgender is usually soon shown the door, given a medical discharge for being mentally and physically unfit for service.
It takes brave people to change policies like that. In Arkansas, one of those people is Rae Nelson. A Little Rock resident who serves as the deputy director of the Arkansas Transgender Equality Coalition, Nelson was already a member of the Navy Reserve when she decided to start transitioning from male to female.
"It really was a life-or-death thing for me," she said. "Honestly. It was, 'Let me do this, or let me be miserable.' "
Nelson began taking female hormones in May 2014. She knew she would eventually have to come out to her superiors when she failed the male-standard physical fitness requirements after six months on estrogen.
"Our bodies change so drastically on hormones," she said. "When we would do these fitness tests, I could usually get up and run them without any type of preparation. I tried to do that after six months on hormones, and I failed. So I was like, 'OK, something has to give. It got to a point where it was time for me to get out.' "
Nelson took a six-month medical leave of absence and continued on hormones. By the time her leave of absence expired in April, her body had drastically changed. Knowing she was at a "slip or break moment," she said she was scared and nervous. She considered just trying to get out quietly. But then she said she talked to a friend, who encouraged her to be honest about who she is.
"I've always been a person who has been a big activist in the community," she said. "Everybody knows I'm the kick-down-the-door type. I come in fighting. So my friend was like, 'You know you're strong enough. You know you have the personality. Why not out yourself? You're about to go anyway. What's the worst that could happen?' So I really started considering this. Why not out myself? If this can help somebody, if this could add more fuel to the fire, if this could push the agenda even more, why not?"
Nelson called her commander and told him that during the leave of absence, she'd been taking hormones and had transitioned from male to female.
"I told him, 'I want to come back, but I cannot come back if I can't be embraced as the woman that I am,' " Nelson said. "I am a transgender service member."
Nelson said she was surprised by the reaction she received from her commander. She said it was much more supportive than she had expected, with her commander saying that he didn't think it was a good reason to lose a soldier and asking her if she would stay if he could arrange for her to run personal fitness tests at female standards.
"I told him, of course I would stay," she said. "I loved being a service member, and I loved being in the military. It's actually something I wanted to keep doing, but I didn't think it could be possible. ... He looked into it, but unfortunately it couldn't be done. He told me that when he talked to his big bosses, they told me to just go IRR — Individual Ready Reserve. I'm still a member, but I'm not doing anything until the end of my contract."
Evan Young, who lives in Pope County, is the national president of the Transgender American Veterans Association, and served in the Army for 14 years as a female, rising to the rank of major. Toward the end of his career, Young began taking male hormones and transitioned.
Young said that while media appearances by transgender people are helping to raise awareness, most Americans don't know that the repeal of DADT didn't make it OK for transgender people to serve openly in most branches of the service.
Young said that recent estimates are that there are at least 15,000 active duty transgender soldiers, sailors and airmen in the U.S. military, and upwards of 100,000 vets, though it's a number that's hard to pin down because so many are still in hiding. Young said that transgender people who are able to fly under the radar are often among the most capable soldiers.
"You'll find that we are highly functional and some of the best soldiers out there, mainly because we're trying to not draw attention to ourselves," he said. "It's harder to be kicked out [of the Army for being trans], but it can still happen. As far as with the other services, there's been no easing of the regulations. It's considered a medical condition, and you can be disqualified and kicked out without any benefits, nothing. You can serve 19 years and 11 months and get kicked out and have nothing."
Young said that in the case of the Army, the decision was made to place the fate of transgender service members who are outed or who out themselves in the hands of high-level commanders, something Young would like to see in all branches of the service.
"The authority has been taken away from the mid-level officers," Young said. "If somebody says they're transgender, it now has to go all the way up the chain of command, and you have to have reason to discharge the person other than they're just transgender."
Young said the ban on transgender people in the military is forcing high quality service people out of the armed forces. Young said the story with transgender people in the military is the same as it was with gay and lesbians in the military.
"It would just make it easier for use to do our jobs and not have to worry about losing our career," he said. "It would allow us to serve. We're already serving. We're already there. You just don't know it."
Rae Nelson agrees. Having recently received her nursing degree, she said that if the ban on transgender service members is lifted, she would consider going back on active duty. While she said the reaction of her commander gives her hope that things are changing, she wishes it had changed fast enough to allow her to stay in uniform.
"It's just ignorance and misunderstanding of transpeople and who we are," she said.
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