Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last Tuesday that the Trump Administration can begin to enforce its restrictions on transgender people serving in the military, the thousands of trans people who are on active duty have been left wondering what their futures hold. The Administration’s policy means that those who do not serve “in their biological sex” face discharge, but it’s not yet clear how that will play out in practice. But, though the dubious idea of set, binary sexes is rejected by research, this policy is unsurprising given that it is not the only effort by the Administration to erase trans people from national life.
But in fact, people gendered differently from what was assigned to them at birth have served in the American military since at least the 18th century. Trying to purge them from that history is nothing new either: the state has long sought to brand trans and queer people as threats to national security and stability.
Sixty years ago, a transsexual woman named Charlotte F. McLeod — who served in the U.S. Army in the late 1940s before receiving a medical discharge — challenged the state’s attempt to define her gender and exclude her from practices and institutions associated with citizenship.
Assigned male at birth, McLeod underwent gender-affirming surgery in the early 1950s. This came on the heels of the well-publicized transformation of another “former G.I.” named Christine Jorgensen, who had become an overnight celebrity. While McLeod never gained as much attention as Jorgensen, she did make headlines. A 1954 report even noted how she had followed “in Christine’s footsteps.”
Like Jorgensen had in the 1950s, McLeod told the world about the “army of people who live deeply depressed, under circumstances we cannot control.” She explained, “I always thought, felt, and reacted like a woman.” Unable to legally undergo the procedure in the United States, she went abroad for surgery. But news of Jorgensen’s treatment abroad had led to new prohibitions so, in desperation, McLeod ended up permitting a quack doctor to conduct the procedure. The decision proved nearly fatal; doctors in Copenhagen only bent the rules to finish the procedure after the quack surgery had created an emergency.
Though she was no longer actively serving, contemporary newspaper reports stressed McLeod’s time in the military. It served as a reminder of her patriotism and commitment to social stability — something seen as remarkable at a time when queer people were viewed as threatening to the nation’s moral fabric and often depicted as potential threats to national security. Most people in the 1950s erroneously interpreted transgender expressions as a marker, manifestation or inherent trait of homosexuality. More often than not, they conflated the two.
In a battle over which political party was strongest in its attacks on communism, the Republican Party in particular linked homosexuality to political and social subversion that could leave the United States vulnerable to Soviet influence and infiltration. This was generally framed around unsubstantiated fears that those who practiced homosexuality were depraved as well as susceptible to blackmail and thus, likely to betray their nation in order to protect their own secrets. Those fears extended to trans people, too. During the 1956 presidential election, gossip columnist Walter Winchell baited Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s Democratic opponent by insisting, “A vote for Adlai Stevenson is a vote for Christine Jorgensen.”
A broader sentiment suggested that, in order to defeat communism at home and abroad, the United States must first uphold traditional family values. For many, trans and queer people stood outside this mythologized image of Americana.
The pushback against nonconformity took place on the local level, too. For example, Miami had a reputation of attracting gender and sexual non-conformists — often lumped together and referred to as “perverts,” “deviants” or “degenerates” — and in the mid-1950s city politicians and law enforcement sought to prove they were not soft on this “problem.” They increasingly criminalized cross-dressing, ordered raids on bars and beaches, and otherwise harassed the city’s sexual and gender-bending renegades.
All these anxieties collided in 1959, when McLeod married a man in Miami. While the marriage fell in line with the precarious image of the traditional family, most people in the city and beyond understood her nuptials as a same-sex marriage and therefore a form of perversion. People were alarmed to learn that, in Florida, there was “nothing in law…to make it a crime.” Even so, many argued, it was certainly “implied” that such a marriage should be prohibited.
McLeod immediately suffered the consequences. She soon left town, and would endure many professional and personal hardships. She persistently battled violence and isolation, and appealed for greater acceptance and understanding. McLeod wasn’t trying to add anything to the contemporary anxieties surrounding family stability. The state’s preoccupation with her body did that work for her.
The 2018 memorandum behind the current policy barring most transgender people from serving in the military carries the heavy weight of this history’s legacy. It posits — despite evidence to the contrary — that the presence of trans people in the military is a risk to “our Nation’s defense and the success and survival of our Service members in war.”
McLeod’s story reveals how trans people are accused — by their very existence — of subverting security, even when they risk their lives for that very cause. In addition, trans servicemembers are especially vulnerable to the violence inflicted by the very state they are defending. For example, trans people continue to battle discriminatory policies in employment and healthcare. They are also, particularly trans people of color, disproportionately vulnerable to violence, poverty, homelessness and HIV infection. Earlier this month, a Black transgender woman named Dana Martin was murdered in Alabama, becoming the first transgender person known to be murdered in 2019. Last year, at least 26 transgender people were killed in the United States. The majority were trans people of color.
McLeod challenged the state’s power to dictate what her body should look like, what duty it should perform and in whose service. She challenged people to rethink the “naturalness” of gender and sex at a time when such norms were held up as Cold War imperatives intrinsically linked to false ideas of national security. This latest effort to erase trans people from the military, and from the national story in general, follows a dark historical trajectory. But that past also includes a strong legacy of trans and queer resistance and resilience, perhaps best exemplified by the Stonewall rebellion that took place 50 years ago this June. No matter what policy the White House puts in place, trans people cannot — and will not — be erased from history.
Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present
Julio Capó Jr. is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is author of Welcome to Fairyland: Queer Miami before 1940 and curator of Queer Miami: A History of LGBTQ Communities for HistoryMiami Museum.