The Coast Guard Needs a Gender Culture Change

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Crew of the Coast Guard cutter Polar Star
Coast Guard leaders need to facilitate conversations around gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation to foster a culture shift on the deckplates. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Cynthia Oldham)

In recent years, U.S. military policy has changed multiple times concerning transgender service members openly serving their country and expressing their gender, which may not be the one they were assigned at birth. This culture change has been plagued with misinformation and politics, preventing the necessary conversations that leaders need to have on the deckplate level, with all shipmates.

Using leadership practices that foster communication and honesty, leaders need to facilitate the difficult conversations surrounding gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. These conversations begin with leaders, as we educate ourselves and hold one another accountable; to know what gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are, the differences between them, and to understand that the more we know, the stronger we will be. Expressing oneself as a gender that is different from one’s sex assigned at birth, is not new to the U.S. military -- it is a practice that dates to Colonial America.

Beginning with the Revolutionary War, women were known to dress as men, secretly enlisting as soldiers, fighting alongside their male comrades. While not necessarily transgender, these women effectively presented themselves as men for our country, using their patriotism for our country’s independence. During the Civil War, Jennie Hodgers enlisted in the U.S Army as Albert J. Cashier and served as a Union solider until the war’s end. Cashier continued to live as a man in Saunemin, Illinois, until he was discovered to have been female at birth and forced to live as a woman until his death in 1915. And then there is Christine Jorgensen and Charlotte F. Macleod, both U.S Army veterans and transgender women. In 1952, Jorgensen, a World War II veteran, was the first American woman and veteran to undergo sex-reassignment surgery with Macleod following as the second female and veteran. The actions of women who went to war as men, and men who transitioned to women, are part of U.S. military history. Today’s leaders must understand this history to chart paths forward.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first executive order prohibiting transgender service members from openly serving, on the basis that transgender service members were a national security risk. This order remained in effect until 30 June 2016, when President Barack H. Obama issued an executive order acknowledging the presence of transgender service members within the U.S. military ranks and empowering them to openly serve. One year and 26 days later, President Donald J. Trump signed a third executive order concerning transgender service members, preventing future members from serving while expressing their gender.

Also from the U.S. Naval Institute:

For three years, five months and 26 days, our shipmates who were openly transgender, and an untold number of U.S Coast Guardsmen who were not open about their gender identity, served our country. Even as the government challenged their existence and devotion to duty, our shipmates’ core values held true and patriotism steadfast. On 25 January 2021, President Joseph R. Biden signed the fourth executive order for transgender service members to enlist and serve in their gender.

When President Trump’s Executive Order was signed, I was an operations specialist first class petty officer, serving in District 1. While the policy was going through the court system, I transferred to District 13, and on advancement to chief petty officer, I transferred to District 11. Only from U.S Coast Guard Headquarters, did I hear of my organization’s position on the policy that negatively affected an unknown number of our shipmates. Public statements from Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the U.S Coast Guard until his retirement in 2018, assured me that my organization was trying to keep its integrity intact.

A Department of Defense–funded study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress confirms that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) military members experience higher risks for sexual assault and sexual harassment. In my role as a victim’s advocate, I initiate conversations about former and current transgender policies, as is known from history that when a demographic is excluded, its members experience an increased risk of hostility and violence. However, I have struggled with these discussions because few leaders at my level are openly talking about gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. After President Trump’s executive order was signed, service members questioned if transgender personnel were fit for duty, leadership, and service. Despite President Biden’s executive order, stronger leadership on the deckplate level is critical, as the door for misinformation remains open. Ignorance and silence around any demographic or equal opportunity employment category is an Achilles’ heel.

During transfer season, when Coast Guardsmen meet new shipmates and supervisors, they know to strike a balance between being their true selves and professionalism. The sense of belonging, finding friends, and fitting in at the unit applies to everyone, regardless of one’s gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. When one has experienced exclusion and hostility for being true to themselves, the question, “Will he/she/they accept me for who I am?” hangs in the six feet of space between us, waiting.

To address this culture change, leaders must set the example to learn and understand the difference between gender, sex, and sexual orientation. To close the door on misinformation and fill the knowledge gap, leaders should know how gender differs from nonbinary, how they both differ from intersex, sex, and sexual orientation, and that each one is an umbrella for more specific terms as they intersect and overlap. Each identity has a purpose and should not be used interchangeably. Leaders must recognize that what everyone all thought they knew about gender and sex was wrong, and if they continue to be wrong, it will undermine the Coast Guard’s camaraderie and unit cohesion.

Remember the leadership practices learned at the U. S Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer’s Academy, Airman Leadership Program, Chief Petty Officer Academy, Coast Guard Academy, Officer Candidate School, and Senior Enlisted Leadership Course. Remember reporting to your first units, shiny new boots, eager to learn and make mistakes. Use the leadership behaviors and practices from your experience in the fleet, the chiefs’ mess, and wardroom. Learn from your experiences and your shipmates to create leadership strategies and combine them with schoolhouse principles. Apply them to the challenge of having difficult conversations about gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Apply them so you can continue to grow personally and professionally. Hold members accountable for their behaviors and language and foster the most diverse departments and divisions the U.S Coast Guard has ever seen. Change is hard; just ask anyone who is transgender.

Since 1873, the U.S. Naval Institute has championed intellectual debate on key issues for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. For more go to usni.org.

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