The US military’s integration of transgender troops: Another milestone in social change

This week’s decision to allow transgender individuals to serve in the military is yet one more reminder of how quickly social change happens in the 21st century. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s announcement comes two years after the announcement that the military was lifting the ban on women in combat and four years since the announcement that it was lifting the ban on openly gay troops.

In contrast, the move to end desegregation in the military began with the formation of the Gillem Commission (named after Army Lt. General Alvan C. Gillem Jr.) which was appointed to study the Army’s race policies in 1945. In 1948 President Truman issued an executive order desegregating the military, and then, very slowly, change happened—with violence and setbacks along the way—until in 1954 the Army deactivated the 94th Engineer Battalion, the last all black unit in the armed forces.

In contrast, in a mere four years the military has overturned nearly every sexual prejudice—which is not to say that the implementation will be smooth. As was the case with black people in the military there will certainly be episodes ranging from subtle discrimination to outright violence as people get used to the change. But the warp speed with which some pretty deep seeded sexual discriminations have been addressed makes one wonder if there isn’t something about this new century that makes for more rapid social change.

One possibility is that the ubiquity of social media allows for better and faster story telling of the kind that breaks down even the most stubborn biases. Take, for example, the Huffington Post human interest story about Sargent Shane Ortega, a 28-year-old helicopter crew chief serving in Hawaii. He’s about as decent and upstanding soldier as you can find and to look at his bulging muscles, thick neck, and copious tattoos you’d never guess that he used to be a she. He gets to tell his story, and between the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and ABC News millions know who he is.

Or take the example of the book Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefied. Named for Lt. Ashley White Stumpf, the first member of the newly created Cultural Support Teams to be killed in action, the book recounts the experiences of a group of women assigned to accompany Special Forces in Afghanistan. They served prior to the lifting of the ban on women in combat in villages to interrogate women and children in the highly sexually segregated Muslim world of rural Afghanistan. Ashley’s War made the best seller lists and is being turned into a movie.

There is nothing that breaks down prejudices faster than feeling you know someone—a gay soldier, a female soldier or a transgender soldier—who you can admire. The kind of numbers these stories are getting dwarf newspaper and newsreel circulation from the twentieth century and they help take us as a society from abstract prejudice to concrete admiration.

Editor’s Note: For full disclosure the referenced Huffington Post article was penned by Elaine Kamarck’s daughter, Chloe Fox.