The Trans Ban

Transgender veteran: history is on our side

By Josef Wolf Burwell, August 2017 Web Exclusive.

As a transgender veteran who continues to serve our country as a civilian, I am particularly repulsed by the impulsive and ill-advised ban on transgender troops in the United States military. Impulsive, because the Pentagon was only one month into a six month study on how to proceed regarding those serving and enlisting. Ill advised, because legislation to continue funding transgender medical care in the military had recently been approved.

Josef Wolf Burwell. Courtesy photo.

I literally transitioned genders while in the company of some of the bravest men and women on the planet. I was proud to be assigned to work among them. They expected me to be ready to stabilize life-threatening wounds or medical illness if necessary. Was my presence disruptive to morale? Never, not once, did anyone express concern that my voice was deepening or my mustache was growing thicker. Conversely, I was quietly and professionally accepted for the emergency medical work I performed, the same as every other person around me, whatever their assignment. How refreshing. If our president had ever served in uniform instead of taking five deferments to avoid the draft, he would know firsthand that fundamental acceptance is born of merit.

In support of the ban, there is the debate that the cost of medical care to transgender service members will be prohibitive. The definitive study on this topic, done by The Rand Corporation, estimates an average cost of around $3 million dollars if every transgender person currently serving (also an estimated number of personnel) had gender confirmation surgery. In perspective, this cost is a tiny fraction of military spending. The military spends $42 million on the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra for male troops, $3 million is also equivalent to four trips to Mar a Lago. Perspective matters.

History tends to repeat itself, and for those who are not students of history, it may be surprising when others seem prescient by comparison. Discrimination, and its undoing, has been seen before, just in different forms: On July 26, 1948, (69 years to the day from Trump’s ban), Harry S. Truman integrated the military, banning racial segregation in all forms. In 1994, President Bill Clinton enacted “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” which was subsequently rescinded by President Barack Obama in Sept 2012 to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. In 2016, women were allowed into combat roles, even allowed to compete for special warfare operator positions.

Each one of these situations – African Americans, gays and lesbians, women in combat – has been met with the same howling cries: this won’t work because (fill in the blank). Then it ultimately works. Why? Because the U.S. military is a magnificent reflection of our society at large, and as in society, we all actually do function together. Predictably, this will someday be so for transgender people as well. Since we have already been serving without incident until those three upending tweets from the POTUS on July 26, 2017. But history is coming at us fast and in an odd order.

We can be different, but our differences will not eclipse our humanity except in the case of true pathology. Let’s check our pathologies, starting with bias, discrimination and hate. There is no place for that in the mission, and we do have a mission. As a transgender man, my mission of resistance is to survive these affronts to our liberty by proving that each of us owns our place on this planet. We deserve to exist, with all the rights, privileges, and freedoms of anyone else in our families, communities, or workplaces. It’s actually a self fulfilling prophecy: you prove this by simply doing it, and not giving up. Not even when the most powerful man in the free world tells you you’re not worth it. He evidently didn’t study history. Because history is on our side, and it’s more powerful than any one man. Resist. Exist in every way, in every corner of your full life. Prove him wrong.


Josef Wolf Burwell, MS, PA-C, is a transgender veteran and federal contractor who has provided emergency medical services in U.S. war zones intermittently since 2011. He is also director of Peacework Medical Projects in Phoenix.