Conflict(ed) Within

During my college application process, I toyed with the idea of applying to West Point.  Then, when I was in college, I took a Military Science class, and thought about making the commitment to sign a contract for Army Reserved Officer Training Corp (R.O.T.C.).  Years later, I eventually recognized that I was in search of control, discipline, family, organization, and clear purpose (read: aspects of normalcy mixed with feelings of rebelliousness).  I’ve since recognized how some of my attraction to my idealized military experience was about desires I could not yet name, but that’s a different blog post.  What actually kept me from signing a contract was that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was in practice.  I knew I could never stay closeted (I was an out lesbian in college) and I kind of bristled under certain commands – both clues it was unlikely I would successfully finish a term of service.  I share these memories to share my thinking about how, as a trans person, I am conflicted about the “policy dictate” via the very (un)presidential platform of Twitter to ban transgender people from serving in the military.  Let me explain a bit about my conflicted feelings…

To be sure, the tweet was a publicly malicious statement that denies the value and existence of transgender people who serve(d) in the military.  Once again, the message is clear that we do not belong, our lives are a distraction and disruption to “normal” people, and our transness makes us less than.  I cannot understand how personal choices about bio-medical transition options are a budget consideration and open for national debate; costs that are, based on actual empirical data, nominal.  I cannot understand how the goal of patriotic duty is not enough to overcome exclusion.

And here is where I get conflicted because I cannot even imagine the challenges that exist for openly (or stealth) transgender service people.  I cannot figure out how transness fits within a military paradigm of gender.  For some I think military service is about patriotism, but for others, I think military service is a form of economic necessity.

I am unconvinced about the positive role of the military in U.S. culture.  I admit that I am not as well-versed on the topics of militarism, nationalism, and imperialism.  Inclusion is an imperfect concept, and I struggle to determine whether inclusion of queer and trans people in the military is the kind of inclusion that demonstrates the liberatory future that could exist (see Barbara Love).  There is a homonormativity (see Kacere) about the argument for trans inclusion in the military; just another way to say we as trans people are “American” just like everyone else.  Violence is a reality for too many trans people, especially trans women of color (see Editors of Everyday Feminism), and let’s be clear: violence is a part of military tactics.  This is a complicated contradiction to manage, and certainly muddles my thinking.  There are people who write with far more nuance and sharp analysis of why the ban on transgender military personnel is problematic (see Dean Spade and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore), and I will not rehash their thinking here.

Instead what I offer is this: inclusion and exclusion are not a binary concept.  There are consequences to people for exclusion that interpersonally are difficult to reconcile.  Maybe because when I imagine liberation, I cannot figure out how we create a world where the military is unnecessary (this is my shortcoming).  So, if I can’t imagine a future without a military, then isn’t trans inclusion in the military necessary?  At the same time, I struggle to feel safe, comfortable, or empowered in the presence of those in uniform.  Might I feel less discomfort if I knew those in uniform were trans?  Honestly, I’m not sure that poses much influence on my feelings because the military is more complex than the individual in uniform; the armed forces are an institution built with rules, boundaries, and regulations that is only mildly influenced by individuals.

Was I surprised by the tweet?  No.  Maybe the most instructive thing relevant for me is to share is what I did feel.  The most acute feeling for me after the news of the tweet was resignation.  I felt resignation because the “travel ban” foreshadowed the isolationist, nationalist, and xenophobic policy decisions of the current administration.  I felt resignation because I expect these kind of institutional and cultural policies, as well as political decisions about the uneasy and contentious existence of transness.  I felt resignation because I knew this tweet energized the more normative queer and trans political organizations.  Military exclusion is the new thing to fire up the base in this “post-marriage” era (not all of us were interested in marriage to begin with, just like not all of us are interested in access to military service).  Is another non-discrimination policy going to really address this issue of institutional and systemic expectations that support trans exclusion?  (See Dean Spade for the limits of the law and Critical Trans Politics).  I felt resignation because where is the data about whether trans people would serve in the military if they had other options for employment, and access to healthcare and education?  I don’t know, but I think it would be a worthwhile research endeavor.  Why are queer and trans organizations supporting access to an institution that has stalled many (all?) attempts to address sexual violence, torture, hazing, and racism?

I felt resignation knowing the counter-story to this new “policy” highlights the “success” stories of trans people in the military – trans people who did not experience violence, harassment, or marginalization for being trans in the military (or who tell the story of persistence in the face of such experiences).  I also felt resignation because I am not willing tell a trans person that military service is inconsistent with the ideology of trans politics.  So, you see, I’m a bit conflicted, and maybe a bit of my resignation is turning into anger, and I have a lot of questions that are underneath the question of this false binary of trans exclusion/inclusion in military service.

Chase Catalano is a White trans* academic who focuses on higher education.  His scholarship focuses on trans* collegians (specifically, trans* men and trans* masculine students in higher education), social justice, and masculinities.  Prior to his role as an assistant professor he worked in student affairs as the director of an LGBT Resource Center.

Trans Equity In Higher Education

Providing full gender equity for trans* and gender non-conforming students, staff, and faculty members is an ongoing challenge at many institutions of higher education across the country.  I fully believe that in order to achieve full gender justice on college and university campuses, trans* and gender conforming individuals must work together to envision what a truly equitable and just campus would look like.  This is not easy work, but I think it can be helpful to highlight some of the amazing work being done across the country.  Some of the work that I see being done on college and university campuses includes (but by no means is limited to) the following.


  1. Gender-neutral housing options.  Many students have talked with me about the need for more safe and secure housing on their campuses, as well as the discrimination they have incurred on account of their gender identity or gender presentation within these spaces.  Many residence halls are gendered spaces that reinforce rigid gender expectations on their residents, force students to live in a space that consistently refuses to validate their gender identity, and lack any feeling of safety or privacy, particularly in shared bathrooms or living spaces.  Consequently, at many campuses, this has meant the creation of gender-neutral housing for students, such as the development of Everybody Loves Everybody, an LGBTQIA and allied living community I advise at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.  These spaces are not only provide a more suitable living option for gender non-conforming students, but also meet a larger demand by students around the country who are asking to be allowed to live with any other student, regardless of gender.
  2. Athletics.  Trans* athletes can face enormous barriers to play on collegiate sports teams, including discrimination and harassment by teammates and coaches, a hostile campus environment, or even barring by administrators to play on such teams.  Many collegiate athletic programs around the country are realizing the need for full equity on all of their teams.  As a result, the NCAA Executive Committee approved new policies in 2011 aimed at greater participation by trans* athletes.  As a result of these recommendations, I have helped train a number of student athletes, captains, coaches, and athletic personnel around fully embracing gender diversity within their athletic programs.  Nevertheless, restrictions still remain, and participation by students on the team of their choice can depend on having access to medical insurance that will pay for hormone therapy.
  3. Preferred name policies.  Students’ names are used publicly on a daily basis to identify individuals and to affirm one’s gender identity, as most names have are gendered.  However, the names on class rosters, on student identification cards, on online directories, on residence hall rosters, on transcripts, and on official communications with the college—among many other things—usually, by default, are one’s name assigned at birth rather than one’s chosen name.  Some colleges and universities have responded by developing preferred name policies, allowing internal systems (i.e., class rosters, student identification cards, etc.) to identify a student by their preferred name in all cases where it is not legally required to do so.  Institutions that have adopted such policies include Bridgewater State University, Connecticut College, and the University of Vermont, among others.  I have also been involved in conversations with my campuses and others across the region in attempting to develop preferred name change policies that allow for students to identify how they choose.  Nevertheless, one’s preferred name is not allowed on documents pertaining to financial aid, official transcripts, and oftentimes official correspondence with the institution.  With the legal and monetary barriers in place for someone to try to change their name, although a college may have such a policy, many students are often left with getting various documentation with different names.  Thus, I strongly believe that more advocacy and policy change is needed at both the state and federal level to eliminate barriers around changing one’s name.


These three examples in no way encompasses all of the amazing work being done, including the organizing the University of Minnesota Transgender Commission has done to increase restroom access on its campus or how many campuses now offer fully trans*-inclusive coverage in their health plans.  Nor do these examples fully capture the enormous challenges facing trans* and gender non-conforming students.


I believe that it’s imperative to work with students, staff, and faculty to demonstrate that every person participates in systems of gender and genderism.  In doing so, individuals can understand how genderism impacts them (though its impact on trans* and gender non-conforming individuals differs greatly than on gender conforming individuals) and take ownership in the ways they enable barriers to be placed for trans* individuals on campus.  Furthermore, I strongly believe that this work must be done in community: It is when we work together as a coalition of students, staff, faculty, and administrators that long-lasting, sustainable change occurs.  Thus, change on campus depends on individuals being aware of how gender fundamentally impacts them on a daily basis, how they participate in such gendered systems, and needing to work in coalition with others to promote positive policy and cultural changes on campus.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.