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Allow transgender people to be ‘their best and most honorable’ selves

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds fly over North Avenue Beach Satuday during the 58th annual Chicago Air & Water Show. | Lou Foglia / Sun-Times

Nearly seventy years ago, President Harry Truman issued an executive order that recognized the contribution people of color had made in World War II and the injustice of segregation and ordered the integration of the U.S. military.

Wednesday morning, on the day of the 69th anniversary of Truman’s order, another president took a giant step backward by banning transgender men and women from serving openly in the military. Make no mistake, transgender patriots will continue to serve, but at what cost to them and the military? This order institutes a new version of the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which ultimately was repealed.

OPINION

Today, there are an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 transgender people serving with distinction in the U.S. military, but most have not come out. Transgender people serve openly in the military of 18 other countries around the world, including in the armed forces of Great Britain, Australia and Israel.

Kathleen Robbins was sworn into the United States Air Force Academy in June of 1964

Any progress in the U.S. was wiped out with a single tweet. This senseless order utterly disregards the results of a year-long study undertaken by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during the Obama administration, which found that integration of transgender service members into the military can be achieved at minimal cost, with no adverse effect on either unit cohesion or morale.

When I was sworn into the United States Air Force Academy in June of 1964, I was 17. I knew I was different, but I had never heard of the words transsexual or transgender. I knew only two things: Becoming a woman was impossible and I better keep my mouth shut if I hoped to graduate. But graduate I did. I flew for two years in Vietnam. I was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

When I transitioned in 1990 following the death of my wife of 20-plus years, it was as if a giant weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I never looked back. For the next eight years I was CEO of a small cellular company. Then I co-founded an economic development project in Haiti, which continues to this day, and I have been executive director of a non-profit in Champaign-Urbana for the past 6 years. What else might I have accomplished had I transitioned earlier?

The motto of West Point is “Duty, Honor, Country.” The Air Force motto is “Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do.” But this past June, two cadets who had come out as trans — one from West Point and the other from the U.S. Air Force Academy — graduated but were denied their commissions. The only reason given was that they are transgender.

Asking the transgender men and women who serve proudly and well in our Armed Forces to be anything less than their best and most honorable self is just plain wrong!

Kathleen Robbins, a retired Air Force officer, runs a non-profit in Champaign-Urbana and is a member of the Community Advisory Group of Equality Illinois, an LGBTQ civil rights organization.

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