Since President Trump tweeted his ban on transgender soldiers, his claims about medical expenses and effect on morale have been quickly debunked by journalists and experts in the field. The voices of brave transgender service members have been heard as numerous news outlets have shared interviews with some of those who are out and serving in the military today.
These are the most crucial voices. These are the individuals whose lives will be profoundly affected by the ban, who are the most vulnerable, and who are also the strongest advocates for why transgender people should have a right to serve.
But after these voices of present-day transgender soldiers, it is important to listen to the stories from the past.
I have been writing and speaking on transgender identity since I came out over twenty years ago. In those years, I have often encountered people who feel that transgender identity is something brand new, that the word and the concept sprouted up like a mushroom after a rainstorm – abrupt and uninvited.
We’ve been here all along.
Admittedly, the word transgender is new – coined in the 1980s and emerging into popular usage in the 1990s – but the concept is not. There is a deep and rich history of transgender people in America, and this includes a number of people who served in the US military.
The story I am most familiar with, the story that I think best exemplifies the history of transgender people in the military, is the story of my ancestor, Deborah Sampson.
Deborah was born in 1760 and labored as an indentured servant in Middleborough, Massachusetts – a life of servitude and poverty. In 1782, General George Washington put out a call for recruits, and Deborah answered that call. She ran away from Middleborough, stole a set of men’s clothes, enlisted under the name of Robert Shurtliff and eventually marched to West Point, New York. At West Point, she was selected to be in the light infantry; she was trained to fire a musket and to use a bayonet. With other members of her company, she patrolled up and down the Hudson River, seeing action in skirmishes and small raids. In one of these encounters, Deborah (called Bob by her fellow soldiers) was wounded by a musket ball. Once she’d healed, she helped to put down a mutiny in Philadelphia. It was in this city that she fell ill with fever and was discovered to be female by an army doctor. She returned to her commanding officer, General Patterson, who declared that she had been a fine soldier and he had never guessed that she was female. Within a few months, Deborah received an honorable discharge.
We have tended to hide away stories like Deborah’s. They trouble us. Or, more specifically, they trouble people who would like to keep the gender binary and the patriarchy enforced. People like Deborah demonstrate that female-bodied individuals are capable of upholding the same standards as male-bodied individuals. People like Deborah demonstrate that those who “cross-dress” are not immediately obvious as “deviant” or “perverse.” In short, people like Deborah show that transgender individuals can make perfectly good soldiers and have been doing so for centuries.
Yes, it is entirely true that Deborah was not transgender. That term wasn’t available to her, nor was the concept of “gender fluidity.” And, yes, Deborah eventually resumed her life as a woman after the war was over. But she lived and served as a man in the army for over a year and a half. She not only survived but succeeded in circumstances under which many other men deserted or sought early furlough. Like so many transgender soldiers today, Deborah was tenacious, self-disciplined, courageous, and intent not on proving a point about gender, but about doing her job as a soldier to the highest standard.
It is inaccurate and misleading to suggest that transgender soldiers are a new phenomenon. Though they are more open about their identities, and though they are present in greater numbers than in previous generations, the United States military has had transgender or “cross-dressed” troops since its very inception. Let the long record of history stand against the few and feeble words of recent Tweets.
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