Transsexuals & the U.S. Military: One More Victory in the Culture War

On July 13th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced plans to change U.S. military regulations to end restrictions on transgender people from serving openly in the armed forces.  Calling current regulations “outdated,” Carter noted that the military “have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines – real, patriotic Americans – who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that’s contrary to our value of service and individual merit.”

The U.S. has passed a “tipping point” in the Christian right’s culture wars, this one involving gender identity.  Trans-sexuality, like homosexuality, was once considered a sin, a hanging offense, and, in the 20th century, became a perversion or pathology.  Today, it is increasingly being conceived as part of the human condition, a feature of a multi-dimensional notion of human sexuality that reconfigures the traditional either/or delineation of masculine and famine.

This shift in orientation in sexual identity gains particular significance in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2015 landmark “freedom to marry” decision, Obergefell v. Hodges.  The decision follows the June 2013 Court ruling in favor of Edith Windsor’s challenge to federal tax laws following the death of her wife, Thea Spyer.  In the decision, the Court rejected parts of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, thus permitting legally married same-gender couples to the same federal benefits as heterosexual married couples.

The military’s action reaffirmed the Court’s decisions in shifting the politics of sexual identity, a further acknowledgment of the rights of “lgbtq” Americans.  In November 1993, Pres. Clinton signs into law the policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; almost two decades later, in December 2010, Pres. Obama repealed the law.  Nevertheless, while the law was in force, over 14,000 military men and women were discharged due to their sexual preference.  Today, more then 15,000 transgender people are estimated to be serving in the military and an estimated 134,000 American veterans are transgender people.

The military and Supreme Court actions come amidst a fundamental shift in sexual values remaking the nation’s moral order.  In the wake of the Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing a woman’s right to an abortion, Christian conservatives launched a vengeful war against abortion rights as well as birth control, teen sex education, homosexuality and pornography.  While the right has faced repeated defeats on most fronts of this war, bitter antiabortion moralists, especially at the state level, continue to oppose women’s reproductive rights.  Nevertheless, formerly unacceptable sexual “perversions” – like homosexuality, porn, sex toys, transvestism, s&m, b&d, water sports and fetish outfits — are, today, enjoyed as normal expressions of erotic pleasure by a growing number of adults, especially women.

* * *

Sixty years ago, in 1952, George Jorgensen, a 26 year-old former private in the U.S. Army, traveled to Denmark to undergo a gender reassignment procedure, what was then known as a “sex change” operation.  Returning to New York as Christine Jorgensen, her daring gained a famous Daily News headline: “Ex-GI Becomes Beauty.”

In popular “before” and “after” photos of Jorgensen, it appears that a male was not merely transformed into a female, but a butterfly was liberated from its caterpillar self.  A reportedly meek, retiring guy left New York and a glamorous, sexy gal returned.  The new Jorgensen appears with high cheekbones, long eyelashes, full, painted lips, wearing a stylish hat and often wrapped in a full-length fur coat.

Jorgensen was born on May 30, 1926, and – along with his sister, Dorothy — grew up in the Bronx, children of working-class parents.  Upon her return to the city, she received considerable media attention – not all favorable.   A handful of publications accepted Jorgensen’s new femininity, but most were contemptuous of her sex change, drawing pitiful attention to the apparent differences between her “feminine” legs and arms from her supposed “masculine” ankles and hands.  Some insisted she was not a “real woman” but a “mentally ill transvestite.”  No publication was more critical then Time, which, in its April 20, 1953 issue, called her an “altered male” and a “male castrate,” claiming she was exploiting her transition to make money.  Nevertheless, Jorgensen took full advantage of her newfound celebrity, becoming a popular nightclub performer, entertaining her audiences with dancing, humorous commentary and chanteuse acts, singing, “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”

In 1959, Jorgensen again got front-page headlines when the city refused to issue her a marriage license.  She was engaged to Howard Knox, a Washington, DC, typist who was the only man she apparently had sex with.  However, he lost his job when the engagement to Jorgensen became known.  The city blocked the marriage on the bases that Knox could not prove he was legally divorced and Jorgensen’s birth certificate listed her as a male; a New York court refused to reassign her birth certificate identity.  Jorgensen never married.

* * *

The world has changed since Jorgensen returned from Demark a half-century-plus ago.  UCLA’s Williams Institute, a research organization specializing in sexual orientation and gender identity issues, estimated in 2011 that there were 700,000 transgender people in the U.S.  “Trans” people continue to experience discrimination and social stigma with regard to employment, housing, health care, the juridical system (especially in prison) and simply using a public restroom.  Nevertheless, the world has changed.

In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association released the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the profession’s bible.  It identified homosexuality as a mental disorder.  Two decades later, in 1973, it removed homosexuality from its classification as a mental disorder, reclassifying it a “gender identity disorder” (GID), also covering trans-sexuality.  The APA’s latest DSM-5 reclassifies GID as “gender dysphoria,” emphasizing a person’s distress with regard to one’s gender identity.  Transgender identity is no longer a disorder, a perversion or pathology.

In 2012, Donald Trump, would-be Republican presidential candidate and owner of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, changed the organizations’ official rules so that a 23 year-old contestant, Jenna Talackova, could compete in the Miss Universe Canada contest.  Talackova, who’d lived as a female since the age of 4 years and had undergone sex reassignment 4 years earlier, was initially disqualified from the contest because she was born a male.  Following Trump’s intervention, she competed.

In July 2014, Pres. Obama issued an executive order adding “gender identity” protections to federal contracting guidelines, covering some 200,000 contractors.  Medicare now covers sex-reassignment surgery and insurance companies are covering transition procedures as medically necessary rather than merely a cosmetic option.

The trans issue gained visibility when Bradley Manning, the Army whistleblower who released the enormous number of classified government documents to WikiLeaks and is now serving a 35 year prison sentence, made a very public decision to shift from a “he” to a “she,” now renamed Chelsea Manning.  Most recently, transition became a mainstream gossip event when Bruce became Caitlyn Jenner.  Jenner, an Olympic gold-medalist and Kardashian groupie, is apparently coming to terms with a deep-seated need to change his sexual identity, but also turning a personal experience into a media spectacle.

Jorgensen’s sex change procedure in 1952 was one of the 20th century’s medical technology’s greatest achievements: the transformation of a male into a female.  It was a truly forbidden accomplishment, an act that reconfigured the most basic element of the human condition, gender identity.  And if nature was not fixed, immutable, what else about sexuality identity and practice – and modern life in general — was open to change?


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David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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