Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

OutServe Magazine | April 17, 2014

Scroll to top


The Cross-Dressing Straw Man

The Cross-Dressing Straw Man
Brynn Tannehill

By Brynn Tannehill

A few weeks ago, late one Saturday night, long after the kids were in bed, my cell phone rang.  The caller ID said it was someone I knew from OutServe, so I picked it up. “Hello?” I queried.  No one answered back. I did hear loud music, and people talking.  Sounded like a club of some sort.  After a few more attempts to get an answer back, I hung up, figuring my friend’s cell phone accidentally dialed me.

Come Monday morning my friend e-mails me with a sheepish, “I am so embarrassed, I butt dialed you that late on a Saturday.  I was at a drag show with some friends.”  Now, this friend of mine is gay, not trans, and the incident highlights the next point in my series of articles on trans service.

When the issue of transgender service comes up, those opposed to it often jump straight to the practice of cross-dressing or drag (which are often conflated).  Drag queens are usually gay men who wear heavy makeup and outrageous costumes for performance and entertainment purposes, and are generally trying to be “campy.”  Cross-dressers are usually heterosexual men who do it for reasons of personal expression.  Transsexuals wear clothing appropriate to the gender they live in day to day.

The people who raise this flag automatically assume that people who cross dress or do drag will insist on wearing whatever they want on base or on duty.  Other accusations include the idea that people will switch between men’s uniforms and women’s uniforms indiscriminately.  One blogger, the wife of a Marine, laid out the standard assertion:

“We need the best and the brightest, the strongest fighters and the fiercest warriors. (And by fierce, I don’t mean Tyra Banks “that outfit is fierce!” fierce.) Conformity and discipline rule in the military. Individuality is not promoted or encouraged. And it is that way for a reason… There is a reason that service members can only have certain haircuts, can’t have visible tattoos and earrings and have to wear uniforms. Explain to me how that works with cross-dressers and trannies, hmm? How does that uniformity and conformity work out when you’ve got a cross-dresser standing in formation?”

 The assumption is that if transgender individuals are allowed to serve openly, you will end up with drag queens flouncing around at morning formation like a pancake-makeup coated Monty Python sketch comedy routine. People assume individuals will exploit the situation to show up for duty wearing whatever they want.  The belief is they will make a mockery of good order and discipline.

The problem with these arguments is cross-dressing is already allowed, de facto, in the military.  I met several cross dressers when I started looking into support groups in the Dayton area. My friend at the drag show knows performers who are military and has done it himself for fun.  The guy who owns the salon just outside the main gate to Area A at Wright Patterson Air Force Base?  He gets a lot of customer traffic from the base.  There are copies of OutServe Magazine in his waiting area. He also does make up for folks doing local drag shows at least twice a month.  What are the odds none of them are in the Air Force?  In fact, one of the Navy’s oldest traditions features cross dressing as part of the “Crossing the Line” ritual when sailors go south of the equator for the first time.

Despite the presence of all these groups, the worst fears of the Marine Corps wife have not come to pass. People don’t show up to work wearing whatever they want. Nor are they being routinely busted for wearing the wrong clothing out in town. And they do not suddenly decide that attire worn when crossing the equator is now a regular uniform of the day.


Crossing the Line: circa 1966

Another interesting angle is that so many of the trans folks I know through OutServe are Female to Male (FTM). I can tell you, most spend their time in public wearing men’s jeans,  binder (a spandex garment meant to compress their chests), and men’s shirts.  They often have haircuts that meet regulations for men.  However, they’re not getting busted either.  Their appearance is not even considered remarkable.  They just look “butchy” to society as a whole, if they are even noticed at all.  They too seem to have no trouble figuring out what uniforms to wear.

According to David McKean, legal counsel for OutServe-SLDN, no one has been kicked out for cross-dressing since the mid-90’s, when one individual was foolish enough to drive onto the base en femme. The precedent is already pretty well established now: as long as you’re following regulations on base and at work, you’re relatively free to do what you want in town.  Part of this precedent comes from restrictions on pursuing individuals suspected of being gay during DADT.

As such, the argument is a straw man. There already are cross-dressers, drag performers, and genetic women who dress like guys in the military, but they are not being kicked out for it. They are not having a hard time figuring out what uniform to wear, how to wear it, or what personal grooming standards apply.

The question arises, though, of what to do about transsexuals. This is particularly true for Male to Female (MTF) transsexuals who are in the process of transitioning.  This is a bit more complex. The standards of care released by the World Professional Organization of Transgender Health (WPATH) recommends at least one year of Real Life Experience (RLE) living in your target gender prior to surgical transition (i.e. Gender Reassignment Surgery).  This requires presenting as a member of your target gender at all times, to include attire.  This is required to ensure the individual is capable of adapting to their new role, as well as making sure people who want surgery really are transsexuals.

This creates two possibilities based on whether the service member is required to transition in uniform.  If the service member is in a position that requires being in uniform each day, they must wear the uniform of their target gender and meet the same personal grooming standards of their target gender as dictated by uniform and personal regulations. This is how it has been handled in the UK, Canada, and Australia.  In other words, when an individual starts transitioning in these militaries they will wear the uniform of their target gender during their RLE period.

If they transition in a position where they are not required to be in uniform during the day (such as getting a degree at a civilian institution, medical furlough, or attached to a DoD medical facility), they will have to wear civilian attire appropriate to their target gender as part of the RLE and comply with personal grooming regulations, if applicable.  This is how it has been handled in Israel. In Israel, the policy is for transitioning individuals to be placed in a medically inactive status and wear civilian clothes of their target gender until they have completed transition surgically.

While the details of how open trans service in the U.S. military have not been established, it is unlikely that an individual would transition in the same way as it is done by some of our closest allies.  Given this, the latter policy option (transition out of uniform) seems to be the one most likely to minimize disruption and objections.

Still, the conclusions remain the same.  Cross-dressing is a straw man argument.  There are people who cross dress in the military already. There hasn’t been an issue with people showing up in the wrong uniform or failing to maintain grooming standards.  For people who are permanently transitioning between genders, there are many ways to comply with the standards of care, while maintaining uniform and grooming standards.