Transgender Day of Visibility — A Veteran’s Perspective

By the time I joined the Navy at age 22, I thought the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy would be a relief compared to the bullying and harassment I’d experienced since I was a child. I remember in elementary school that I was just another kid who loved to play baseball and kick-the-can with the neighborhood kids on the weekends, but I got called a “tomboy” — a word I never understood or identified with, and that I now understand as something that inflicts transphobia upon kids while they’re figuring out who they are. When I got to high school, I wasn’t called “tomboy” anymore — the words kids called me had progressed to ‘‘butch” and “dyke.” At this point, I wasn’t out as queer or trans, but that didn’t stop football players and their friends from hurling these words at me as I walked the halls. I wanted to die. I didn’t know how to tell anyone who cared about me about my suicidal ideations or the cruel words my peers called me for just being myself.

But even in the Navy, an organization that prides itself on good order and discipline, I never managed to escape the name-calling and outright hate I’d experienced for just walking through the world as myself. Serving in the Navy, I looked as I do now — short hair, no makeup, and clothing and appearance that others view as masculine. It started in boot camp with a Force Master Chief who told me that, “If I came here to find someone to get into the racks with, I came to the wrong place.” I remember the day I was told that a Petty Officer in my detachment announced, loudly enough to be heard into the hallways, “that dyke doesn’t belong in my Navy.” He was referring to me, for everyone I worked with to hear.

I was repeatedly told that I had a “faddish hairstyle” in civilian clothes and in uniform or that I needed to “grow my hair out and find a boyfriend to protect myself.” I was expected to present, not first as a Sailor, but as a traditionally and acceptably feminine woman. Only that isn’t who I am. There was no room for people like me. And under military policy, I was on notice that I could easily be discharged — even under conditions that would hamper my post-military employment prospects — if I failed to conform to the gender standards laid out for me.

This Transgender Day of Visibility (TDOV), I’m reflecting on what it truly means to live as both a veteran and a trans person in 2022. March 31 is a day each year for trans people across the world to celebrate the lives of those in our community who have made it this far and the resilience it takes to live as we are — and also to speak out about the ongoing discrimination faced by trans people. Globally, transgender people have an average life expectancy of 30–32 years. This year I will turn 37 — something to celebrate and reflect on. Yet I wonder every day if I’m living on borrowed time.

This year marked 10 years since I returned home from my military service, far longer than I ever wore the uniform. Yet, the scars of those years spent in the military, both literal and figurative, live at the forefront of my mind. Today, I lead Minority Veterans of America, a nonprofit that we launched just 12 days after Donald Trump infamously tweeted his reinstatement of a ban on transgender people serving in the military.

When I lived under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I had to remain silent about the fear and abuse I experienced daily because of my gender expression and sexual orientation. As a veteran and advocate, I’ve been empowered to speak up for those who remained silent and endured abuse just to serve their country. Simultaneous to DADT was a lesser known policy which was a ban on transgender service members. While Trump made the Military Trans Ban a commonly known policy, prior to 2016 transgender people could not serve openly in the military. Even fewer people know that to this day, there is still a ban on nonbinary people serving in their authentic gender and an outright ban on intersex people.

Discrimination based on gender and gender identity at all levels must end in the military. It has been toxic, harmful, and costly in its long-term consequences for servicemembers and veterans. The military’s long-standing anti-LGBTQ+ policies have allowed a culture permissive of hate, discrimination, and gender identity-based harassment to fester and cause harm upon far too many patriotic young Americans. To see the effects of this, you need look no further than the statistics on suicide, Military Sexual Trauma, and mental health crisis for LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans. Our community has been disproportionately harmed during our military service and, as veterans, we carry those wounds with us. Though sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same, the harassment we’ve endured and the violence we’ve faced cannot be extricated from one another.

Yet too often the toxic, discriminatory culture that harmed us during our time in the military transfers over into the veterans’ organizations and institutions we seek help and care from when we try to recover. In the veteran space, I have been routinely misgendered and harassed in the same ways I was in the military. As I’ve testified before Congress on legislation impacting veterans, internet trolls have called me “it” and “thing,” as if to rob me of my humanity and my dignity.

In the last week, I’ve challenged a leader of a national veteran-serving organization on her Tweet saying that a transgender woman was not actually a woman and making an explicit description of this person’s genitals. She seemed to think this was a casual personal statement, but the LGBTQ+ veterans who saw this leader’s hurtful comment certainly took it as a flashing red light to keep away from her organization as unsafe and unwelcoming.

Last December, I needed to use the restroom while I sought healthcare at the VA Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. As I entered, a VA staff member stood in the door of the women’s restroom I was using, shouting repeatedly, asking if there was a man in the women’s restroom, citing that he had heard a man had gone in there. When we finally reached the understanding that I am not a man, he feigned an apology, explaining that this traumatic moment in my life — and disruption to my medical care and mental health — was for the purpose of protecting VA patients and VA staff to which I replied, “I am the patient.” I’m reminded continually that, in too many spaces that purport to care for all veterans, “all” simply doesn’t include veterans like me.

Last year, even as I watched President Biden lift the onerous ban on binary transgender military service, a change we fought long and hard for, I faced deep fears when I came out to those closest to me as trans nonbinary. Writing those words for the first time, my hands shook and my mind raced at the possible outcomes. At 35 years old, after all I’ve endured, something deep within me believed the world might stop and I’d lose all I had fought so hard to build. What happened couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Though I’ve lost friends and colleagues and struggled with relatives, my community and those I call family have shown up to love me just as I am, every single day.

What is unfolding across the country, however, has me more afraid for my identity than at any time in my life. Legislation in state after state intended to demonize and eradicate trans folks or scare us into submission has transgender veterans, our families, and those among us who have transgender children on absolute edge. This Transgender Day of Visibility brings up fear and pain for so many of us. But I’m also inspired by allies and fellow advocates asking what needs to be done to ensure trans veterans and families are protected, included, and fully welcomed as part of our military and veterans communities.

First, we must demand that the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs adapts to the reality that transgender veterans exist and that we are as deserving of affirming care and benefits as any other veterans:

  • VA facilities must ensure that all patients and visitors can move freely without the harassment or harm that has been endemic for women and LGBTQ+ people. If VA is safe for transgender veterans, staff, and visitors, then VA will be safe for the broadly diverse population of veterans it is charged with serving.
  • VA needs to ensure all facilities have safe restrooms where no veteran needs to dread someone causing a scene or ousting them because they are transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.
  • VA–and the lawmakers who oversee it–must commit to collecting comprehensive demographic data, including on gender identity and sexual orientation. This currently isn’t even tracked and is a glaring gap in VA’s efforts on health equity.
  • VA must allow veterans the option to designate “X” as their gender marker in VA records; denying this option places an undue burden on nonbinary veterans to explain their identity over and over again to each and every provider they see. This is an option being implemented for veterans in New York and other states, and VA should not fall behind on this basic acknowledgement of gender identity.
  • VA must acknowledge that transgender healthcare is healthcare. VA must include gender affirming surgeries in the medical benefits package.
  • VA is currently rolling out pronouns on medical records, but Congress must mandate a full commitment to a smoother rollout of including pronouns on medical records through VA and that VA, including all providers, use these pronouns in all correspondence and interactions.

But the VA cannot change if we in our veterans organizations and communities across the country don’t also seek to be inclusive, safe places where transgender veterans — like any other veterans — are welcome to find cameraderie and support. If your veteran group or organization truly leaves no one behind, then show that transgender veterans are fully welcome and accepted:

  • Talk with your membership and peer groups about the importance of including and accepting transgender veterans and their families. No veteran should be at higher risk for suicide, homelessness, substance abuse, or other tragic outcomes because they’re bullied, harassed, excluded, or harmed by other veterans.
  • When hate and harassment is directed at your transgender members, stand up for them. Affirm their identities and project the message that they belong and hate has no place in your organization. Ensure they feel welcomed to step up into leadership opportunities in your chapters and governing boards. Let them know you have their backs.
  • Ensure your trangender members aren’t alone in their fight for inclusion and equity. Join them in making demands of VA facilities, veteran spaces, and members of Congress to account for and include transgender veterans and their families. If you advocate for all veterans — then show you truly mean all veterans.
  • In the upcoming weeks, VA will post a proposal for gender affirming surgeries for public comment in the Federal Register. Your transgender members shouldn’t be left alone to sift through hateful comments to ask for basic healthcare. Support them and add your comments of affirmation as fellow veterans.

As a veteran community, it’s time for us to have some tough conversations with our fellow veterans about the toxic culture that exists for transgender veterans, and for LGBTQ+ veterans broadly. The culture we’ve created to survive literal wars must change to reflect the camaraderie that we all consider the best part of who we are. Transgender veterans like myself can’t be the tip of the spear on this needed change. It must be the whole of our community that moves forward, that stands up and demands that we do better.

On this Transgender Day of Visibility, I’m reminded that owning our identities as trans people, in our full and authentic beauty, is the most revolutionary thing we can do and we do it every single day. Those of us who are veterans ask the rest of our community to stand with us.

Written by Lindsay Church (they/them), Executive Director and Co-founder of Minority Veterans of America

Portions published in Military Times here.




Lindsay Church (they/them) is the Executive Director and co-founder of Minority Veterans of America, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the veteran narrative.

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Lindsay Church

Lindsay Church

Lindsay Church (they/them) is the Executive Director and co-founder of Minority Veterans of America, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the veteran narrative.

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