By Fred L. Borch, III
Since the end of the ban on both transgender1 and openly gay and lesbian men and women serving in our Army,2 the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community is a visible and integral part of our Corps.3 Leaders at all levels who want to motivate and inspire Soldiers to excel must understand the unique concerns facing LGBTQ members of not just our Corps, but also the greater Army population. Empathetic leadership requires nothing less. But, as many leaders in uniform are cisgender4 and heterosexual, they may be unaware of some of the challenges unique to members of the LGBTQ community. This short article provides some tips in leading those community members.
Mental health. For many in the LGBTQ community, it is traumatic to “come out” to family, friends, and co-workers. Mustering the courage to come out brings with it the fear of rejection and often drudges up past trauma. Will my parents, brothers, and sisters accept who I am if I come out as gay? Will my military family see me the same way when I tell them that I am a lesbian? How will my coworkers react if they find out my child is transgender? Will they understand that this path is not a choice? The issue is compounded in the Army environment, where bonds are stronger than those in the civilian sector, and it is arguably more difficult to be honest about one’s personal life.
As Major Vanessa Strobbe and Master Sergeant Loni Martinez explained in a 9 June 2022 panel event at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, it is not unusual for LGBTQ Soldiers who reveal their sexuality to be rejected by family members and friends. Leaders need to understand that coming out presents a mental health challenge that cisgender, heterosexual men and women do not experience. Rejection hurts. Master Sergeant Martinez, for example, kept her true self hidden from fellow Soldiers for years. But when she decided to come out, she discovered that her fellow Soldiers were not surprised and, generally, were accepting. It was not the same with her family members, some of whom remain unhappy with who she is.
The emotional toll may also extend years after coming out. For instance, an LGBTQ Soldier may have used the Army as a means of escaping a family that responded to their coming out with rejection. This may mean that the Soldier may not have anywhere to go during the Thanksgiving or winter holidays and that this time may not be as joyful as it is for those who have family to visit.
The longer the Soldier stays in the closet may exacerbate the mental health issue, especially if the Soldier has taken drastic steps to avoid presenting his or her “true” self to superiors, peers, and subordinates. As Brigadier General Tammy Smith explained in an interview in 2016, during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, she would ignore gay and lesbian friends when she passed so that she would not raise suspicion.5 When shopping for groceries with the woman she was dating, the two women would separate in the store to avoid any awkward introduction, if a Soldier approached one of them to say hello.6 Ultimately, Brigadier General Smith came out publicly to her fellow Soldiers—but it was not easy.7
As Major Vanessa Strobbe and Master Sergeant Loni Martinez explained in a 9 June 2022 panel event at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, it is not unusual for LGBTQ Soldiers who reveal their sexuality to be rejected by family members and friends.
Not all states or countries treat LGBTQ members equally under the law. Be mindful of your location’s restrictions and limitations on the community, particularly for your LGBTQ Soldiers and Civilians who are family planning or have LGBTQ children. During assignment preference conversations, mentors should be aware that a location’s restrictions may impact an LGBTQ Soldier’s assignment preferences. Outside of assignment season, leaders should be cognizant of the uniquely high financial and emotional burden that LGBTQ Soldiers face while family planning. The cost in and of itself can be prohibitive for many Soldiers,8 likely increasing stress and straining job satisfaction.
Private Life and Public Life
Ultimately, leading Soldiers in the LGBTQ community requires understanding that balancing one’s identity as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender with the public aspects of Army life has its own challenges. Creating a safe space and understanding the mental health challenges faced by LGBTQ members is critical for the success of our Army and our Corps today.
Leaders need to signal to LGBTQ individuals that where they work and live is a safe space—that they have nothing to fear from superiors, peers, subordinates, and co-workers. This can be accomplished through several easy steps. The leader can, for instance, use non-gendered language when inquiring about a Soldier’s personal relationship. Simply ask, “Do you have a spouse or significant other?” This signals you are mindful of the possibility the answer could9 reveal that the significant other is the same sex as the Soldier.
Remember also that as Soldiers depart from a unit on a permanent change of station or a release from active duty, new Soldiers come into the unit who may not know anything about the LGBTQ community or its concerns—or that a Soldier who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community is a part of the unit. Compassionate leaders will ensure that maintaining a safe space is not a one-time effort, but rather, a continuous one. Another simple yet powerful means of creating a safe space is by making corrections. For example, if co-workers use “gay” as a pejorative term or an insult, explain why this is not just wrong, it is a violation of Army Regulation 600-20 and the Army’s Equal Opportunity policy.10
A Final Note
There is often a lot to gain in discussing and working through issues like the ones covered in this article in a group setting. One group where leaders can do this is the JAGC Pride Network.11 It is comprised of members and allies of the LGBTQ community in the Army JALS community, and provides mentorship, support, and professional development for its members while aiming to promote awareness of and counsel leaders regarding issues affecting LGBTQ Soldiers.
The author thanks Major Vanessa Strobbe, Master Sergeant Loni Martinez, and Captain Shmuel Bushwick for their help in preparing this article. TAL
Mr. Borch is the Regimental Historian, Archivist, and Professor of Legal History and Leadership at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.
1. Enabling All Qualified Americans to Serve Their Country in Uniform, Exec. Order No. 14004, 86 Fed. Reg. 7,471 (Jan. 25, 2021); see Jim Garamone, Biden Administration Overturns Transgender Exclusion Policy, U.S. Dep’t of Def. (Jan. 25, 2021), https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2482048/biden-administration-overturns-transgender-exclusion-policy.
2. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-321, 124 Stat. 3515 (2010); see David Vergun, DOD Marks 10-Year Anniversary of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Repeal, U.S. Dep’t of Def. (Sept. 20, 2021), https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2782167/dod-marks-10-year-anniversary-of-dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal.
3. “LGBTQ Army Soldiers and Civilians serve with honor, dignity, and commitment, making our military stronger and our nation safer.” The Judge Advoc. Gen. & Regimental Command Sergeant Major, TJAG & RCSM Sends, Vol. 41-12, In Celebration of Pride Month (16 June 2022). For a history of the Army’s treatment of the LGBTQ community, see Fred L. Borch, The History of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in Army: How We Got to It and Why It Is What It Is, 203 Mil. L. Rev. 189 (2010).
4. “Cisgender” denotes a person “whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” Cisgender, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cisgender (last visited Mar. 15, 2023).
5. Brittney Dunkins, First Openly Gay Senior Army Reserve Officer on Leading a Double Life, GW Today (Apr. 4, 2016), https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/first-openly-gay-senior-army-reserve-officer-leading-double-life.
7. Id.; see also Thomas Brading, Army’s First Openly Gay General Retires After Inspiring Others, U.S. Army (June 1, 2021), https://www.army.mil/article/247068/armys_first_openly_gay_general_retires_after_inspiring_others.
8. For example:
Sandy Chuan, MD, a fertility specialist at San Diego Fertility Center, confirms that the costs of conceiving via fertility treatments can be shockingly high for LGBTQ+ couples.
She says sperm samples can cost $600 to $900 per vial. One IUI attempt without insurance costs about $700 to $1,000, plus the donor sperm. “I usually tell my clients to ballpark around $1,500, but they might need to do three to six rounds,” Dr. Chuan explains. If IUI is unsuccessful, the next step is IVF, which Dr. Chuan says can cost as much as $15,000, plus $4,000 to $5,000 for medications to stimulate egg production. The price point for procedures can vary by state and market.
For couples who need a donor egg, a process that requires IVF, the price can be around $25,000 to $30,000, which includes the creation of embryos and the donor’s medical screening. Compensation for the egg donor, genetic testing, legal fees, and medication may add on an additional $6,000 to $20,000.
If a couple is using a surrogate, which is only legal in some states, costs climb to an average of $110,000, according to the FertilityIQ, an organization that researches fertility treatments and their costs. Dr. Chuan tells her patients to budget for $150,000 to account for miscellaneous expenses. “I would estimate $120,000 to $180,000 for patients, and they should realize that medical fees are just a part of that number,” she says. “After that you’re paying for things like for medications and compensation for the egg donor and surrogate, legal fees, and agency fees.” You may also need to pay for your surrogate’s insurance fees, and compensate them for time off work if they’re put on bedrest.
Then there are the dozens of smaller costs that add up over a process that can sometimes take years: psychological evaluations for yourself and possible surrogates, as well as travel expenses, to name a few.
Molly Longman, The Hidden Costs of Starting a Family When Queer, Refinery29 (June 15, 2020, 8:00 AM), https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2020/06/9487744/gay-couples-adoption-ivf-cost-becoming-parents.
9. Names can be tricky! Be careful not to make assumptions based on them alone.
10. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 600-20, Army Command Policy ch. 6 (24 July 2020) (Military Equal Opportunity Policy and Program).
11. Contact information for this group can be found at https://www.facebook.com/groups/jagpride or send an email to email@example.com to join its listserv. This is not an endorsement for a particular non-Federal entity (NFE) but is provided as an example, because organizations like this are a great resource to interested members. This is an NFE and not part of the U.S. Army JAG Corps, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense. See generally, U.S. Dep’t of Def., 5500.7-R, Joint Ethics Regulation paras. 3-208, 3-209 (30 Aug. 1993) (C7, 17 Nov. 2011).