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New Pentagon rules for transgender troops to take effect Monday

Army Infantry soldier Patrica King began transitioning from male to female more than a year ago.
Army Infantry soldier Patrica King began transitioning from male to female more than a year ago.
Image by: Kara McDermott/American Homefront

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It was more than a year ago that Staff Sergeant Patricia King began her transition from male to female, and just about everything about military life became more complicated.

"Everything was an issue, whether it be restroom use or the uniform that I wear, where I was housed," King said. "All of those things were an issue."

King was a woman in life, but according to the military, she was a man on paper. She had to conform to male grooming standards and uniform requirements. King remembers her command puzzling over who would oversee a routine urinalysis. (They went with a female medical provider.)

"It was uncharted territory for so many people, so we went through a learning process together," King said. "I think what they discovered is that trans people are just people."

The new protocol from the Department of Defense is designed to address those kinds of issues. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced in June that transgender troops could serve openly in the armed forces. The protocol — which takes effect Oct. 3 — sets down rules for transgender service members and their commanders.

It says King and other service members whose gender transition is complete should be treated as their new gender. It also allows troops with gender dysmorphia can receive medical care in the military system.

Aaron Belkin is the director of the Palm Center, an independent research institute that focuses on gender, sexuality and the military. He anticipates few problems with the new policies.

"This is not rocket science. This is about allowing people to be honest and open about who they are," Belkin said. "This is not a heavy lift and this is not going to be difficult to implement."

The British, Australian, and Canadian armed forces already have inclusive policies for transgender personnel. But people who've followed the integration efforts in those countries say just having a policy isn’t always enough.

Alan Okros at Canadian Forces College in Toronto says strong leadership and clear expectations and education are essential.

"If there isn't a concerted effort to get this information out, to define terms, to explain processes, etc., then people who are less comfortable with it, people who chose not to understand it, people that do have biases or prejudice can use the lack of clarity to cause problems or cause confusion," Okros said.

Patricia King is confident that U.S. military personnel will embrace the new policy with professionalism. That's how she says she was treated at Fort Carson in Colorado and at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.

"The great thing about the Department of Defense is that we are all about standards and discipline. We have a box for everything and everything goes in its box," King said. 

"All it really took was for this policy to allow them to move me to that other box labeled female. And from there, things really aren't all that complicated because woman have been serving in the military for a very long time."

In fact, she thinks the military is ahead the rest of society in accepting transgender people.

"I would not want to be stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina right now," she said. "While I think that Fort Bragg is probably going to do an amazing job implementing these policies and procedures, with HB2 North Carolina is not a very friendly place for a transgender person to be right now."

The Pentagon has estimated there are about 2,500 transgender troops in the active military. By next July, the military plans to accept transgender recruits for the first time.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, Southern California Public Radio, KUOW-Seattle, and WUSF-Tampa.