Transgender and Military Research: Interview with Ci3's Brandon Hill

Brandon J. Hill, PhD, comes to Ci3 with an extensive background in transgender research. Hill has just received a two-year grant to study transgender issues in the military, a subject that's been especially newsworthy of late but actually has a long history. In the following interview, Hill talks about his background in transgender research and what he hopes the new study will accomplish for transgender individuals in military service.

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Dr. Brandon Hill (far right), with Joshua Trey Barnett, and former Navy SEAL and author of Warrior Princess, Kristin Beck (Photo by Christine Grost)

As a new research staff member at Ci3, can you talk a bit more about your background in transgender research?

I have a relatively broad background in research that includes gender, sexuality, and transgender studies. My main focus has been on the ways in which individuals understand their body as sex or gendered. But this has led to a wide array of research topics, into which I have delved deeper.

My current project examines transgender medical accommodation and care in the U.S. military. The goal of this project is to assess the need for medical accommodation for transgender service men and women, and determine in what ways the inability to "come out" as transgender while serving in the military may actually increase distress and have negative health implications for these service members. Given that the Department of Veterans Affairs is now covering the cost of transition-related counseling and hormone therapy, it is like dangling a carrot in front of active members' noses. This disjuncture in policy just seems unfitting and out of sync with the current Standards of Care for transgender health. However, given the current military's policies on "gender related disorders", there is not good data on how many transgender service men and women are currently serving. Thus, this project looks at both active members and veterans who identify as transgender.

In the recent press coverage of Chelsea Manning (f/k/a Bradley Manning), the disgraced soldier who's been sentenced to 25 years in federal prison and is transitioning from male to female identity, what have you found the most unsettling and why?

The main thing that I find unsettling in this case is that some coverage seems to be ahistorical forgetting that there have been many publicized U.S. military personnel who have transitioned after serving in the military. For instance, one of the earliest transgender-identified U.S. veterans, Christine Jorgensen, was met with newspaper headlines like "Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty" in 1952. And there are many others. As other transgender activists like Jenny Finney Boylan have expressed, this case is not the only narrative on transgender individuals and the military.

You just received a grant from the Palm Center (funded by Col. Jennifer N. Pritzker) to study transgender issues in the U.S. military. What do you hope to accomplish with this research?

With this commissioned study, we hope to gather the stories of transgender service men, women, and veterans to try our best to fill in the gap where there has been so little research attention. My collaborator, Joshua Trey Barnett, and I hope to highlight the challenges and complexities of transgender service members and veterans who have transitioned during active duty or have accessed medical treatment and care from either the VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] and/or private health care providers after military service, and evaluate what the VA already accommodates medically, and the usage and perceived quality of care of services for transgender mental health care and cross-sex hormone therapy. We hope that the findings from this study have broader implications and build on the Palm Center's initiative to enhance this quality of scholarly information available for understanding the interaction of transgender medical accommodations and the U.S. military.

What do you think the increased awareness of the relationship between trans* individuals and the military (the Manning case, former Navy SEAL Kristin Beck, etc.) means for the prison system, society and trans* individuals themselves?

I think that increased visibility combined with sound evidence-based research, like the one we are hoping to complete, has direct implications for potential changes in policy. Though the focus of the current project is within the U.S. military, in any system in which policy is out of sync with contemporary identities, an evidence-based approach with sound research is likely to inform policy change.