I had no idea.
The United Kingdom is one of the United States' closest allies.
(Soldiers running on a beach. Like you do).
And for the most part, our militaries are pretty similar.
But there's one big difference.
The United Kingdom allows trans men and women to serve openly in its armed forces. And despite the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the United States still does not.
Indeed, there is an enormous gap between being a trans soldier, sailor, or airman in a military that welcomes you with open arms and one that pretends you don't exist.
Ayla, the British Royal Air Force pilot featured in the documentary above, is allowed to serve openly as a trans woman. Which allows her to do her job better.
"When you have a diverse group where diversity is not just tolerated, but it's included and encouraged, that group — that organization — is more productive. It's just a nice place to work. It works better. Significantly better."
— Ayla, RAF pilot
Meanwhile, her American counterpart in the documentary can't even show her face or identify herself by name for fear that she'll be discharged.
"We work just as hard and we're just as good as anyone else. Just because we have a different view of ourselves doesn't mean we can't do the job. I think what it comes down to is they think we can't perform as well when, in fact, we perform just as well, if not better."
— Soldier, U.S. Army
Indeed. All the +1s, in fact.
Fiona Dawson is the filmmaker behind "TransMilitary," and the woman who interviewed both subjects.
I spoke to her via email about the process of collecting these stories, and what the future might hold for the American soldier who volunteered to speak out.
1. What inspired you to make the documentary?
I was inspired by the opportunity to tell untold stories that would make a significant impact on making the world a better place. As a bisexual woman who volunteered many hours advocating for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," I myself was shocked to learn that transgender people are still banned from serving in the U.S. Yet they can serve in 18 countries worldwide, including in the UK since 1999. [Ed. Note: In the video above, Fiona did say 13 countries, but 18 is actually the correct number.] I have a number of trans friends, and I wanted to direct my career into presenting and producing visual media that promotes human equality, so starting a project sharing the personal stories of awesome transgender service members seemed like the right thing to do.
Through working on this project, I'm inspired by how transgender service members overcome with an incredible show of strength the huge challenges imposed upon them by the military and society. I'm inspired by the lesbian trans woman I know who continues to serve despite being told she is not welcome at command social functions. When asked why, it's because she loves her job and she loves her country. What could be more "American" than that?
The goal is to give the largest, loudest platform for transgender people to be heard, so when people come to know that our similarities far outweigh our differences we will create a society with true equality. I believe that when Americans see how kick-ass transgender service members are, they will realize that they're equally kick-ass in civil society too.
2. Are you still in touch with your subjects? How have their careers evolved since the film was made?
Yes, absolutely I'm still in touch with the people I first got to know, and I have built relationships with many more over the past couple of years. There are 15,500 American transgender service members, many of whom are connected through a private group, SPARTA. I am fortunate to be connected with many SPARTANS who have trusted me to help share their stories. It's a privilege and a pleasure. At this point my "subjects" are my family. We chat every day throughout the day, and I get to hear every twist and turn in their experience of serving in the military: doing the job they love to the highest standard whilst risking discharge simply for not identifying with the gender associated with their sex assigned at birth (SAAB). In my mind this is gender discrimination.
The female in this video is still actively serving, but her situation is not secure by any means. Every day we're wondering, "Is she going to be next?" But then there are many people living circumstances like hers. The irony is that the estimate of 15,500 people makes America's military the largest employer of transgender people. A government organization whose outdated medical policies ban transgender service employs more such people than any other known entity.
It's hard to fathom that those who protect the home of the brave and the land of the free are not given the same respect and opportunity in life that they so fiercely defend.
3. What can people who want to end the exclusion of trans men and women from the U.S. military do to get involved?
People can help get to know trans service members and share their stories. It's a fact that media changes attitudes toward people. Open transgender service will happen when the Department of Defense updates its policies, but they need to have the political will to do it and the powers that be need to know their transgender service members.
We can't bring 15,500 people to the Pentagon, but we can bring a handful — who are courageously willing to risk their careers — to our media screens.
(This interview has been condensed for clarity).
In order to help end the ban on transgender soldiers, sailors, and airmen serving openly, please consider getting involved with the Transgender American Veterans Association.
Fiona and her partners are also looking for funding to complete their documentary project, which you can support here.
V, a friend of the American Soldier interviewed in the film, puts it best.
"She has chosen a career path to serve our country and support our country, and it would be awesome if our country would in turn support her."