On (Trans) Women and Soldiers

There seems to be something approaching an epidemic of gender identity disorder amongst US veterans. The figures are striking. In this group, gender identity disorder has nearly doubled over ten years, running at a level roughly five times higher than in the general US population (22.9 per 100 000 rather than 4.3 in 100 000 persons).  And in this group, gender identity disorder is strongly predictive of attempted suicide – something that occurs 20 times more frequently than amongst US veterans with other kinds of health problems. [1]

Why should this be so, and what does it tell us ?  If trans women are more common in the military than in civilian life, does this mean that it is essentially feminine to fight?

According to some trans activists, brains are inherently gendered at birth.  As Caitlyn Jenner recently explained: ‘“My brain is much more female than it is male” [2].  This is a version of gender essentialism rooted in brains rather than bodies. If your brain is female but your genitals and chromosones are male (so the argument goes) then you are liable to suffer from a deep sense of misalignment, a form of body hatred that may ineluctably lead to suicide.  If this is so, then medical transition is a life-saving intervention. But if this is so, then it must follow that men with innately feminine brains are statistically more likely than the general population to sign up to fight.  It’s a puzzling proposition.

The link between transitioning and the military seems to have been there from the start of medical (that is hormonal) transitioning in the twentieth century. Christine Jorgensen (1926 –1989) was the first trans woman to experience hormone therapy in addition to surgical transition.[3] She grew up in the Bronx and was drafted into the US army after graduating from high school in 1945.  Hearing about transition surgery after her military service, she travelled to Europe and in 1951 underwent the first of a series of operations in Copenhagen.

In Jorgensen’s case military service was not a choice.  But why should trans women be drawn to military service in the years after the draft?

Oddly, women were compared to soldiers back in 1792, by a writer who is now thought of as an early feminist, though the term had not yet been invented. Writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, shortly after the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women of her time were in some ways similar to soldiers. She thought that soldiers, particularly officers, revealed just what was so damaging about the education of women.  You were as unlikely to find ‘any depth of understanding […] in the army as amongst women’.

Whereas today’s trans women claim that their brains are essentially feminine, Wollstonecraft refused to believe that the brain, or the soul, was gendered. The only difference she saw between men and women lay in education: women tended to think in less bold, and less logical ways because they could access less rigorous education.  This was the reason, she thought, that women were like soldiers: both lacked education. She  believed that the identity of a professional soldier depends on obedience to authority rather than individual conscience. This group identity is reinforced by rigid  codes of behaviour and dress. Like women:

officers are also particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule. Like the fair sex, the business of their lives is gallantry; they are taught to please, and they only live to please. [4]

Writing in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft was engaged in an attack on the gender essentialism of her own age.  Her counter-intuitive comparison between women and soldiers was designed to unpick the language of naturalness: if women are like soldiers, ‘feminine’ behaviour like dress, flirtation and obedience is not essentially feminine.  She ridicules the indoctrination of girls to ‘cultivate a fondness for dress, because a fondness for dress […], is natural to them’.  [my italics] From her point of view, there is nothing natural about the kind of femininity that Caitlyn Jenner has uncovered in herself.

Wollstonecraft’s eighteenth century polemic attacks the writing of Jean Jacques Rousseau that was celebrated by radicals and revolutionary sympathisers in her circles.  But just the gender essentialism that she attacked  is now resurgent. Since the triumph of market capitalism in the 1980s, Rousseau’s ‘natural’ clothes-obsessed woman is celebrated as the model for another supposed version of liberation. Caitlyn Jenner’s dream of femininity: ‘a cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara and the prospect of regular “girls’ nights” of banter about hair and makeup’ is touted as a triumph of the human spirit. [5]

Today, when transgender is offered as a form of liberation, the role of gender in the military once again offers pause for thought. It seems unlikely that the high rate of transsexualism in US veterans represents the innate femininity of soldiers. The high rates of mental disorder in veterans are easier to understand as a symptom of trauma. The attraction of a stereotypical image of femininity to a traumatised soldier might have made sense to Wollstonecraft. But if this is the case, trauma calls for help deeper and more lasting than bodily change.  And this raises a disturbing possibility.  For if transsexualism is ever an expression of the multiple forms of trauma in modern life, then the treatment of trauma through chemical or surgical castration is a crime. In such cases, it may be treatment that leads to suicide as much as the (untreated) predisposing trauma.


[1] Blosnich, John R. et al. “Prevalence of Gender Identity Disorder and Suicide Risk Among Transgender Veterans Utilizing Veterans Health Administration Care.” American Journal of Public Health 103.10 (2013): e27–e32. PMC. Web. 10 Aug. 2015.


[2] Elinor Burkett, ‘What Makes a Woman?’ New York Times, June 6, 2015


[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christine_Jorgensen accessed 25.08.2015, 13.14.

[4] Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, introd. Mary Warnock, (London: Dent, 1985), p28.

[5] Elinor Burkett, ‘What Makes a Woman?’


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