Military’s transgender challenges are reminder of race, gender struggles

SEATTLE — For professor Nathan Roberts, past is prologue.

He sits in Smith Hall at the University of Washington prepping for another summer session class, thinking of what he will tell students about the changing reality of the military.

“It is a similar excuse that has been used time and again,” he says of the claim of military weakness connected to the acceptance of transgender members of the armed forces.

The military has had a fraught relationship with race first, gender second, and orientation today.

Videos from the National Archives like “The Negro Sailor” were used as recruitment videos, but tacitly downplayed the separate but equal attitude at the time.

It wasn't until July 26, 1948, that President Harry Truman forced segregation to end.

Roberts says it wasn't easy.

“They strongly believed, the Marine Corps did, that that it would break down unit cohesion. That morale would drop,” he said, echoing the same terms that have been used for integration of women and gays into the military.

The role of women has been even more complex, though.

Women have helped with factory work and nursing, but as recently as the 1970s, they were unable to even graduate from the academies.

This year, women are prepping for the front lines -- and the promotions that come along with it.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are perhaps the toughest of all, says Roberts.

“It's, of course, that older generation that says that if you're not like me, that's not OK,” he said.

The Army and especially the Navy have made great strides in public to promote LGBTQ acceptance, even including a profile of a married couple.

But there is a difficult past of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) that kicked out many members of the armed forces simply for being gay.

The 1990s policy inspired a military comic book in 2001, guiding soldiers how to handle “homosexual conduct” in the chain of command.

After the 2011 repeal of DADT, Department of Defense sites have been scrubbed of documents and training manuals on training and inclusion.

Even more may change.

A Navy video from November explains Obama-era policy allowed servicemen and women to change identity.

“They must receive a diagnosis from a military medical provider indicating that gender transition is medically necessary,” read the announcer.

Q13 News also found that the Army just last month was training leaders in transgender acceptance and policy. All branches appear to have created programs, how-to guides and other educational material that may now go unused.

It's unclear what will happen with that new frontier -- when the present eventually becomes the past.