Commentary: Supporting transgender service members

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- The air was stale in the hangar. Airmen packed the space, feeling the strain of one of the hottest New Mexico afternoons of Summer 2015. We were sweating, swearing, and snoozing our way through another commander’s call, squinting wearily at an enlisted leader visiting from U. S. Special Operations Command. Clutching a handheld mic in the center of the sea of bodies, he shifted his balance from foot to foot as he attempted to speak on a topic that clearly made him uncomfortable.

“As for transgender members—” the mic popped, his voice wavering in and out— “There’s the, uh, the top surgery, and the bottom—“ the command sergeant major was a living caricature, literally tugging his collar and mopping his brow as he struggled— “we pay for the, uh, the top, but not the bottom.”

I felt for him as he spoke on a topic so new to so many, especially when a rumble of dissent passed through the hangar. Questions rippled through the crowd, some frustrated (“Why should I pay for that?”), others curious. One force reigned: confusion.

A lack of information can bring about all kinds of negative outcomes, ranging from discomfort to anger to outright harm. While our leadership are delivering primers on the changes in DoD policy, troops are still figuring out how to be good wingmen to the transgender service members who can now serve openly in our military.

According to an October 2016 memo from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, transgender individuals will be allowed to openly serve in the Air Force as of July 1, 2017. The memo goes on to tell us that trans Airmen are protected by Equal Opportunity policy, then it breaks down some specific rules about mission impact, individual standards, medical care and records management.

Though the information is out there, we all can and should take our own steps to combat the fear of the unknown and treat our fellow Air Commandos with respect. Laila Ireland, a veteran and board member with transgender service member advocacy nonprofit SPART*A (Service members, Partners, and Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All), published the following tips to the American Military Partner Association blog: respect pronouns, respect identity and be an ally.

Honoring pronouns and identities of trans people comes down to treating them with dignity. If someone in your workplace requests that you call them a new name, or use ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ or vice versa, one of the best and easiest ways to support them is to simply do as they ask. If you mess up, correct yourself and move on, and remind others to do the same. Any transgender Airman has fought the battle of realizing their gender, making and implementing a plan with a doctor, and having that plan approved by their commander.

These are people who have tapped into their deepest reserves of grit and tenacity as they rose to the occasion of defining and declaring their true selves. They practice a form of the battle-forged toughness we stake our reputation on, especially here in AFSOC. These are people you want on your team. That’s why it’s important to be an ally to trans service members.

While ‘ally’ is the popular term used in the LGBTQ community, the Air Force has a great word that substitutes in easily: be a wingman. Ireland writes that you can show respect for the trans people in your life by educating yourself on the issues, correcting mistakes, calling out bad behavior (remember, wing Equal Opportunity will have your back) and asking questions respectfully.

For a long time, trans people have had to serve in silence, or leave the military to begin medical treatments that affirm their gender. They still face adversity in and out of the military: while changes in policy come swiftly, changes in culture are gradual, sometimes painful and rife with pitfalls.

This moment of turbulence and uncertainty is the best time for you to be a wingman and leader among your peers. Support this policy change, but much more importantly, support your fellow Air Commandos—you never know when you might say just what a transgender, transitioning or questioning Airman needs to hear. Namely, “I see you,” “I believe you,” or “I’m here for whatever you need.”