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Transgender sergeant: New policy puts military ahead of civil society

Kara McDermott for KUOW
Staff Sgt. Patricia King serves at Joint Base Lewis-McChord

New rules that go into effect Monday from the Department of Defense detail protocol for military doctors who care for transgender service members.

The rules also establish guidance for commanders.

It’s the latest step in the Pentagon’s year-long roll out of new policy since Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced in June that transgender troops could serve openly.

It was more than a year ago that Staff Sergeant Patricia King began her transition from male to female.  As an infantry officer in the Army, suddenly simple things became more complicated.

“Everything was an issue, whether it be restroom use or the uniform that I wear, where I was housed if I was to go somewhere. All of those things were an issue,” King said.  

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King was a woman in life but a man on paper, according to the military. She had to conform to male grooming standards and uniform requirements. King remembers her command puzzling over who would oversee a routine urinalysis; they went with a female medical provider.

“It was uncharted territory for so many people. So we went through a learning process together, and I think what they discovered is that trans people are just people,“ King said.

The new protocol address those issues. King and other service members whose gender transition is complete can become their gender on paper. It also allows troops with gender dysmorphia to be treated within the military medical system.

Aaron Belkin is the director of the Palm Center, an independent research institute that focuses on gender, sexuality and the military. He anticipates few problems moving forward for the Department of Defense.

“This is not rocket science. This is about allowing people to be honest and open about who they are. The medical service providers in the military need to acquire a little bit of competence about transgender people. But this is not a heavy lift and this is not going to be difficult to implement,“ Belkin said.

Indeed, British, Australian and Canadian forces already have inclusive policies for transgender personnel.

But just having a policy isn’t always enough.

Alan Okros at Canadian Forces College in Toronto has studied that country’s integration of transgender troops. He says strong leadership and clear expectations and education are essential.

“If there isn't a concerted effort to get this information out, to define terms, to explain processes, etc., then people who are less comfortable with it, people who chose not to understand it people that have biases or prejudice, they can use the lack of clarity to cause problems or cause confusion,“ Okros said.

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Patricia King is confident that U.S. military personnel will embrace the new policy with professionalism. That’s how she’s been treated at Fort Carson in Colorado and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

“The great thing about the Department of Defense is that we are all about standards and discipline. We have a box for everything and everything goes in its box,“ King said. “All it really took was for this policy to allow them to move me to that other box labeled female. And from there things really aren't all that complicated because women have been serving in the military for a very long time.”

In fact, she thinks the military is ahead of the rest of society in accepting transgender people.

“I would not want to be stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, right now. While I think that Fort Bragg is probably going to do an amazing job implementing these policies and procedures, with House Bill 2, North Carolina is not a very friendly place for a transgender person to be right now. So I think that while our Department of Defense is absolutely leading the way on gender equality and social justice, the country has some catching up to do,“ King said.

The Pentagon has estimated there are about 2,500 transgender troops in the active military. By next July the military will accept transgender recruits for the first time.