A unique conference around transgender military service

In late October 2014 I had the opportunity to go to the United States to participate in a conference called “Perspectives on International Transgender Military Service”. The Swedish Armed Forces were officially invited by the Palm Center to participate and a decision was made on by Director General and Deputy Head of Personell to send me and Helena Hoffman from our HR Centre to the conference. The decision of our participation came swiftly and to me it says something about the changed culture on the command level in the Swedish Armed Forces and their understanding of the importance of LGBT issues. In the center of the organizers were Mr Aaron Belkin who also was a key player in the work around abolishing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell-act which made it possible for homosexuals and bisexuals to serve openly in the United States Armed Forces. This conference was part of a longer set of activities to provide academic insights into why it is time to abolish the ban on military service for transgender persons as well. Even during the preparations I was struck by the passion and professionalism in the way he and his team worked with the conference.

Previous US studies
One of the efforts provide academic insights are these studies published ahead of the conference:

Even the release of these studies gained a lot of press coverage like this article in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/08/25/the-pentagon-can-easily-drop-its-ban-on-transgender-troops-study-finds/

Present at the conference were participants from Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK, some of the 18 countries that currently allow open transgender military service. In addition to that there were many former services members from the United States who had lost their jobs just because of them being transgender.

The conference was organized around different panels where some where focused on the policy makers from the respective countries and some were focused on sharing the concrete evidences from transgender military services members both from the United States and the invited countries. The schedule looked like this.

9:15 am

Lessons Learned & Best Practices (HR & Policy Officers)

10:45 am


11:00 am

Foreign Military Experiences: Transgender Troops Tell Their Stories

12:30 pm

Working Lunch on Military Diversity (Research etc)

1:30 pm


1:45 pm

Deployment in Austere Conditions: Stories from Combat Zones

3:15 pm


3:30 pm

Next Steps for America: Applying Allied Lessons in the US Military

I was part of the second panel together with Lucy from New Zealand, Donna from Australia and Natalie from Canada. My colleague Helena was on the first panel. To read more about each participants see their individual bios at the ACLU page: https://www.aclu.org/perspectives-transgender-military-service-around-globe

An emotional day
That Monday in Washington D.C. turned out to be a very intense but also emotional day. I realized that was probably the first time that I had been around that many transgender military service members ever. My previous experiences in LGBT Military issues actually involved mostly gay men and the occasional lesbian woman. I have often been the only transsexual present and to some degree put into an ambassador’s role where I could be the representative and “expert” on transgender issues. I have always tried to not be limited to my own personal experiences but rather tried to show the spectrum of approaches transgender people can have on their job and life in general.

In this case however it was a unique experience to be part of a fairly large group of people which all had transgender experiences in the military. I think that also meant that it became way more personal for me. Partly because my approach no longer would be just accepted but rather challenged (although politely) and partly because there suddenly were people around me who had chosen different ways of handling their transition process, their job and their way of life. That of course triggers questions about my own choices in life. We were not only from different countries with different cultures but also from different armed forces around the world. Each with a slight variation of core values and best practices but also their own set of military rules and regulations. That means that we all had different context and circumstances in which we have dealt with us being transgendered.

Hearing about hardships others have gone through is never easy and it sure affects me on a deep emotional level. Maybe the most obvious example was all the people from the US who shared the experience of being force out of their job in the Armed Forces just because they were transgendered. Imagine just having found out who you really are and in the midst of that relief and joy you realize that you are fired from your job just because of that. Especially in the United States where a lot of the benefits around health care, dental care and housing are connected to your employment. That is lost in addition to the salary and job. These men and women also seemed very brave and full of resolve since many of them today are activists trying to change that antiquated policy – something that can be done solely by President Obama himself.

Important information sharing
Just as when we gathered for the NATO LGBT Working Group this summer in Stockholm I was again reminded of the importance that we meet in person and share not only personal experiences but also discuss best practices and policy options in real life. There is still such a shortage on information that being able to get updated on that is a goal in itself. This was of course unique because it focused soley on the T letter in LGBT which is even more important since transgender issues are even less covered than gay (men) issues. I was again amazed of how much work is actually going on around transgender military service around the world. Policy documents are being written, studies are being done and support organizations are being formed. The United Kingdom is once again impressive in the professional way they approach transgender issues. They seem to have a more direct logical approach between decision being made and what is actually needed in terms of policy changes and resource in order to make it happen. The way they have formed formal support networks within the ranks and their LGBT mentor system is very impressive. In Sweden we tend to be vary of large comprehensive measures as and rather take “one step at a time” with little or small resources being committed. Instead it is supposed to be handled by people doing more general equality or gender-related work.

It is quite hard
Being transgendered is hard, that was obvious after the conference. We mixed hearing rather disturbing stories of bullying and bad mental health together with more positive ones indicating that it is very possible to serve in the military with a transsexual background. Still most of us seem to face very real and hard challenges both at work and in society in general. Even though we need to discuss bullying in the military culture we also desperately need some good role models to point to the future with. It seems like the main challenge is changing the culture so these organisations develops a climate where both transgendered people and women can serve with equal opportunity in a safe workplace environment. When you are fighting real enemies with guns you don’t want to be challenged by your colleagues.

A tale from the “paradise”
Telling my story sometimes felt like a tale from the paradise which I guess it is compared to a lot of other experiences. However, it is just me and my very unique personal journey through the armed forces which has work better than all expectations. I feel safe at work in the Swedish Armed Forces HQ and I feel respected for what I do. Nothing to take for granted if you have a transsexual background unfortunately. However, from a personal perspective it is not really a tale from paradise but that is not something that is discussed more than briefly during events like this. In the end finding love and someone to share your life with is just as important as being respected at work. I got the sense that many of us with a transsexual background struggle really hard with dating and relationships. It is a fairly cruel world in that respect.

Five of us women which all belonged to the Air Force decided to take this unique group photo as seen below:

Women with transgender background from five different air forces around the world.
Women with transgender background from five different air forces our the world.

So the day was emotional but also filled with lots of interesting seminars where all of us shared experience from each nation. A lot of new facts and reflections was presented to us in away that I think never had been done before. I really felt each minute was worth focusing on and my head was filled of thoughts from each one and half hour sessions. The third component was the media which was present in the room. Journalists from big media organisations like AP, Huffington Post and ABC was there covering the event. So it wasn’t just us discussing amongst lgbT people but also something for the general public. Something the world would see. I was asked several times by the organizer to do interviews which become a stark contrast to the emotional experiences of listening to my colleagues all over the world. Instead I needed to snap into “interview mode” and be able to be that ambassador myself for a few minutes. One of whose was an interviewed with WJLA – ABC which you can see here in both video and audio: http://bcove.me/mvu2egk2

The media coverage from this conference was nothing short of impressive. A lot of the major media outlets around the world wrote a piece of this event. Well, in Sweden it was not noticed at all. Here are some examples:

The Daily Mail


The Guardian

Huffington Post

Pink News UK

Me and Helena outside the ACLU Office. Photograph by Lucy Jordan, New Zeeland Air Force

One thought on “A unique conference around transgender military service”

  1. It was a privilege and a pleasure to have taken part in this, and to have met you and all the other people who gathered together to talk about this important issue. I’d never really thought about the term ‘ambassador’, but it really does fit.

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