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“TransMilitary,” a provocative and timely documentary from directors Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson, looks at the difficulties faced by the estimated 15,500 active duty troops in the United States military who identify as transgender.
Even after the flawed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was rescinded to allow gay and lesbian troops, policies still prevented transgender soldiers from openly serving. In fact, it wasn’t until the last throes of the Obama administration that the conversation even really began.
We’re introduced to the personal stories of four service members in this film – Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland, retired Cpl. Laila Ireland, Capt. Jennifer Peace and Capt. El Cook. All four were members of SPARTA, a secret organization for transgender members of the military, and were part of a team that held meetings with top officials at the Pentagon to discuss the possibility of changing military policies beginning in the summer of 2015.
You have to understand that for people who are at the vulnerable intersection of race, gender and class and also deeply embedded in a military career, just being open and going to these meetings put them at severe risk of being discharged. They bravely went to be a part of those discussions and answered all the questions they could in order to see positive change for themselves and others willing to risk their lives for our country but who were forced to lie about who they are.
Cameras were unable to capture the sensitive meetings that occurred, but we do see the preparation and commitment involved. We’re also able to spend a little time with each soldier individually, learning about their families and everyday lives. For some like Logan, a supportive unit means the ability to follow male grooming regulations and be seen by his fellow troops the way he sees himself. For others like Laila (who we also learn is engaged to Logan), a lack of support by home base commanders results in being forced to present male when at all other points in her life, she is living as a woman.
It’s infuriating to see statistics that show military spending for erectile dysfunction medication at levels 10 times higher than any health care provided to transgender troops. When the argument is made about how expensive it would be to cover medications, the reality shows that it’s a complete and utter false equivalency.
The film covers the continued efforts by SPARTA to change hearts and minds at a time when states like North Carolina and Texas were hard at work proposing anti-transgender “bathroom bills.” And even though the Obama administration officially lifted the ban on transgender troops in June 2016, it’s a battle that is far from over thanks to the Trump administration’s directive to reverse course and go back to a ban.
Funded by GLAAD’s Media Institute, the South by Southwest screenings of this important film will hopefully help it find a wider audience and offer a much-needed boost to the conversation.
“TransMilitary” had its first SXSW screening on Saturday and screens again at noon March 14 at the Alamo South Lamar. Grade: B