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Continued Discrimination in ROTC

By Samuel Bakkila and Jia Hui Lee

The recent repeal of the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy has paved the way for several universities, including Harvard, to reconsider recognizing the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program on their campuses. This decision is being considered because the military's policy on sexual orientation no longer conflicts with Harvard's non-discrimination policy.  However, supporters of welcoming back the ROTC overlook the fact that Harvard’s non-discrimination policy also covers gender identity and sex.  Transgender and intersex individuals are still barred from military service and face hostile discrimination during and after their service despite the repeal of DADT. We believe that Harvard should not recognize ROTC until the U.S. military extends equal rights to transgender and intersex individuals.

The U.S. military and, by extension, ROTC currently bar transgender people from serving, classifying non-normative gender identity as a mental illness that automatically disqualifies transgender individuals from service. This is in contrast to seven other nations, including Canada, Thailand, and the U.K. that allow transgender individuals to serve in their militaries.

The U.S. military's anti-transgender policy, however, does not stop trans-identified individuals from serving; it only prevents them from serving openly. The President of the Transgender American Veteran’s Association (TAVA), Navy Machinist Mate First Class Monica Helms, describes transgender veterans in the USA as having served in every war since World War II.  A recent survey by TAVA about the treatment of transgender veterans got 827 responses, and it is estimated that there are thousands of other former and current members of the military who identify as transgender.

The discrimination against transgender individuals is evident on many levels of military policy: recruitment policies, dismissal of personnel, and veterans’ access to healthcare. According to TAVA, many veterans who now identify as transgender report facing harassment and discrimination about both the gender identity and sexual orientation. Harassment concerning gender identity is not protected under the military's Anti-Harassment Action Plan. Transgender service members, who are already vulnerable to harassment and discrimination, are left with no possible means of recourse to protect themselves.

Even after their tenure in the military, transgender veterans reported discrimination at Veterans Association hospitals and were denied medical care specific to transgender health. Federal law prohibits Veterans Health Administration (VA) facilities from performing or paying for sex-reassignment surgeries.

Intersex individuals, people born with different genital anatomy, are also excluded from military service. According to a 2007 report from The Michael D. Palm Center, there is a long list of disqualifying genital differences, both male and female, that are used to bar individuals from service. For example, having one undescended testicle, a condition effecting almost percent of men, makes a man ineligible for service. Sexual health is an important part of overall health, and it is good that the military considers this in its health standards. However, the military's preoccupation with genital differences that in no way compromise an individual's health or ability to serve is explicitly discriminatory.

Although ROTC offers an opportunity for students from low-income backgrounds to pursue higher education, this does not mean that recognizing ROTC is a socially equitable choice. Because Harvard has generous financial aid policies, low-income students can attend Harvard without ROTC support. Actually, that ROTC provides tuition payments for participants makes its exclusion of transgender individuals even more problematic. The discrimination in every ROTC program in the nation constitutes a systematic barrier in access to higher educational resources for transgender individuals.

Harvard President Drew Faust commented that the repeal of DADT “affirms American ideals of equal opportunity and underscores the importance of the right to military service as a fundamental dimension of citizenship.” However, the right to military service and many other basic rights and dimensions of citizenship are denied to transgender individuals. Transgender people are not protected from employment discrimination in most states and are routinely denied healthcare that is essential to their well being under both public and private insurance plans. Tragically, the Human Rights Campaign estimates that at least one in every 1,000 homicides is a hate crime against transgender individuals. Transgender inclusion in the military would be a powerful victory for everyone who understands that transgender individuals deserve equal rights and equal citizenship.

President Obama, celebrating the repeal of DADT in his recent State of the Union address, called on “all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past.” However, Obama fails to recognize the continued discrimination against transgender people in the military. Harvard, and other colleges reconsidering ROTC, should reaffirm their commitment to non-discrimination despite Obama’s call for “unity” because there is no unity to be found in the endorsement of discrimination.

Jia Hui Lee ’12, a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies concentrator in Leverett House, is a member of the QSA and the Harvard Trans Task Force.  Samuel Bakkila '11-'12, a psychology concentrator in Eliot House, is the co-chair of the QSA political committee.

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