Gender Confirmation Surgery For Transgender Vets: It's About Time

by Elizabeth Broadbent
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On June 19, Denis McDonough, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, announced that his department will begin covering gender confirmation surgery for vets: finally. He choose to announce the major policy shift at a Pride event in Orlando, where he said, “We are taking the first necessary steps to expand VA’s care to include gender confirmation surgery—thereby allowing transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA at their side.” Biden, he said, was the driving force behind the decision: “At the end of the day this is in the president’s authority to do… He’s made clear it’s time to do it and that’s precisely what we’ll do.”

That’s a big turn from Biden’s vice-presidency, when the administration announced explicitly, according to Slate, that the VA did not cover gender confirmation surgery. “At VA, we’re doing everything in our power,” McDonough said, to be more inclusive about the health care they offer their LGBTQIA+ veterans.

It’s about damn time.

Gender-confirmation surgeries, explains The New York Times, align a person’s gender identity, or their “deeply held expression of gender,” with their gender expression, or their “external manifestations of gender“: the way they present as male, female, nonbinary, or other to the world. They do this by “reconstruct[ing] sexual organs to match the gender with which an individual identifies.” Transgender individuals with a “gender incongruence,” reports Psychiatry, are six times more likely than the general population to visit a health care provider about a mood or anxiety disorder; three times more likely to take medication for a mood or psychiatric disorder; and “more than six times as likely to have been hospitalized after a suicide attempt.”

If we want an effective military — and healthy vets — they deserve gender confirmation surgery. Period. And it’s long overdue.

Openly Transgender Vets Aren’t New

We can trace stories of transgender soldiers back to Deborah Sampson, who dressed as man to serve in the Revolution and was only discovered when he was wounded (and whose identity as transgender may be questionable: was he a woman dressing as a man to serve, or truly transgender?). But the first modern documented transgender vet, according to Time Magazine, was Christine Jorgensen, who transitioned in Denmark after being discharged from the Army in the 1940s. She received gender confirmation surgery, illegal in the United States, in Denmark in the 1950s. But her gender confirmation was conflated with homosexuality, which at the time, was associated, in a roundabout way, with communism.

Another vet, Charlotte McLeod, has a similar story — but with a tragic ending. Upon the heels of Christine’s story, she traveled to Denmark, only to find that performing gender confirmation surgeries on foreigners had become illegal. A botched surgery by a quack, nearly fatal, left surgeons to “bend the rules” to fix it. When McLeod later married a man, society condemned her (though what she’d done was perfectly legal), and she went through “many personal and professional hardships.”

This is the bullshit we put transgender vets through.

Gender Confirmation? Good Luck.

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And you think that only happened in the dark ages of the 1950s, think again. Donald Trump banned transgender individuals from the military. But they weren’t really banned, insisted the Department of Defense. It broke down like this: if you already had a “diagnosis of gender dysphoria,” you could continue hormone treatments, serve as your gender identity, and receive gender confirmation surgery. If you were henceforth “diagnosed” with it, none of that for you. And if you were taking hormones or had already had gender confirmation surgery, you couldn’t enlist. Trump, according to NBC News, said he was “doing the military a great favor.”

What the fuck?!

This is an especially what the fuck moment since a Department of Defense commissioned study found that “Additional health care costs [for transgender individuals] could range between $2.4 million and $8.4 million, representing an approximate 0.13-percent increase.” Moreover, only 10-130 servicepeople would have “reduced deployability as a result of gender transition-related treatments.” An examination of militaries that allowed openly transgender service members found zero difference in “operational effectiveness, operational readiness or cohesion.”

The Trump ban? There was no reason for it but bigotry, pure and simple. They denied soldiers and vets needed gender confirmation surgery because they hated transgender people.

But the Bigotry Isn’t Gone…

The lead House Republican in the Veterans’ Affairs Committee just had to tweet about the new plan. “This announcement clearly has more to do with advancing a radical liberal agenda than serving veterans. It is a disgrace. This Administration should rethink its priorities immediately.”

Yes, because stopping vets from attempting suicide is part of a radical liberal agenda that’s a total disgrace.

But The Gender Confirmation Surgery Isn’t Coming Fast Enough says that this is the first step in what will likely be a “yearslong” process in getting the VA to cover gender confirmation services. And that’s not fast enough for our transgender vets, who are suffering high rates of suicidal ideation, anxiety, and depression.

But according to The New York Times, even McDonough admits that “The vestiges of bigotry remain.” While he brags about sticking up V.A. rainbow magnets and changing the sub-agency’s name from L.G.B.T.Q. Health Program to L.G.B.T.Q.+ Health Program, this is the kind of rainbow-washing bullshit that makes cishet men feel good while they push back the timeline on real change.

Our transgender vets and service members deserve better. And they deserve it now.