Veterans: How Will Trump's Ban Affect Transgender Troops?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Last month, President Trump tweeted that transgender troops should no longer be allowed to serve. Since then, transgender veterans have wondered how the president's pronouncement could affect their access to the VA. Steve Walsh of member station KPBS reports.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Kristen Dancer is a Navy veteran who served as a corpsman in Fallujah in 2006. With the help of VA doctors, Dancer transitioned to being a woman in 2016. I asked her to choose a place that illustrates her new life. She picked a makeup store that she goes to more than once a week.
KRISTEN DANCER: The whole art of makeup is to help accentuate what you already have, to take your inner beauty and just accentuate it on the outside.
WALSH: She gets her medical care at the VA hospital in San Diego. The VA doesn't offer transition surgery, but it does provide services like hormone therapy, counseling and speech pathology. Like other veterans who made their transition after they served, Dancer fears President Trump's threat to ban transgender service members will turn back the clock at the VA.
DANCER: I don't know if that means that - based on his tweets - whether we're all going to get kicked to the curb and we have no place in the VA or in any type of military services.
WALSH: The VA created its LGBT health program in 2012. A 13-page national directive outlines how transgender vets should be treated. The VA requires each hospital system in the country to have a LGBT coordinator. Jeri Muse is the one for San Diego.
JERI MUSE: Certainly, coming out now to a provider, we encourage that. You know, it's more like do ask, do tell.
WALSH: That's a cultural change for the U.S. military. The Clinton era policy of don't ask, don't tell didn't apply to transgender people. Even after gay and lesbian troops were allowed to serve openly in 2011, it was another five years before transgender service members could do the same. Muse says there are medical reasons for engaging with patients about their gender identity.
MUSE: A transgender woman may still need a prostate exam. A transgender man may need breast screening and gynecological exams.
WALSH: The military and the VA say they won't change their policy without something more than a tweet from the White House. But the Transgender American Veterans Association is worried. Board member Zander Keig wonders whether troops will be discharged immediately if the president's tweets become official policy.
ZANDER KEIG: Like, it could be that hundreds of people find themselves administratively separated from the military, and they're just thrust into this new civilian life.
WALSH: A report by the Williams Institute estimates there are 15,000 transgender troops on active duty and in the reserves and another 134,000 veterans. Defense Secretary James Mattis questions those figures. Truth is, no one has an exact count of how many transgender people have been in the U.S. military. Most hid that part of themselves while they served.
VERONICA ZERRER: As a trans person, you do such a good job of acting before you actually come out to yourself.
WALSH: Veronica Zerrer initially joined the service in 1976. As a retired officer, she was asked to return to duty during the second Iraq War. She wanted to serve. But by that time, she had transitioned to being a woman.
ZERRER: I couldn't because that was still in the era of don't ask, don't tell and - let alone addressing any transgender concerns. I very easily could have lost my military retirement.
WALSH: There was a time when LGBT troops could be given less-than-honorable discharges, making them ineligible for most VA benefits. With so many unanswered questions, Zerrer and other transgender veterans worry they may face the kind of dilemma that they thought was a thing of the past. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.