Abstract: Strength and Resilience: The Unknown Stories of Transgender Service Members and Veterans (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Strength and Resilience: The Unknown Stories of Transgender Service Members and Veterans

Sunday, January 17, 2016: 10:45 AM
Ballroom Level-Congressional Hall A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Heliana Ramirez, LISW, LGBT Veteran Group Facilitator and Social Work Program Evaluator, VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, Menlo Park, CA
Background and purpose:

The experiences of transgender service members and veterans are relatively unknown given the legacy of the military ban on transgender service and limited discussion of LGBT service members in gay media, social science research and Gay and Lesbian Studies. The limited existing research focuses almost exclusively on health disparities and minority stressors facing LGBT military personnel and veterans, such as military sexual trauma. This dearth of information risks medical and mental health professionals creating services from a deficit and disease-oriented model (Massey et al., 1998). The literature’s predominant focus on problems leaves providers ill-equipped to develop strengths-based services informed by the sources of resilience that enabled coping with minority stressors.  To address this gap, this presentation utilizes a queer theory perspective to examine culturally specific forms of strength and resilience identified in the first-person narratives of transgender veterans.


First person narratives of 8 transgender service members and veterans were identified in documentary film and television: “Lady Valor,” “The Camouflage Closet,” “Coming Out in Camouflage,” “GENSilent,” and “TransMilitary” (Nedelman and Ramirez, 2013, Ramirez in-production, Maddux, 2010, Herzog & Orabona, 2014, Dawson & Emory, 2014). This sample of transgender people was diverse in terms of race/ethnicity and gender (White=3, Black=2, Asian=2 and, Native American=1; transgender women=4 and transgender men=4). The first-person narratives were analyzed for themes of the strength and resilience they used to negotiate military service under transgender military ban.  Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically, guided by the principles of grounded theory and an inductive approach to qualitative analysis. Results were considered in relation to major constructs of queer theory: Coming Out, Camp, Queer Activism, Coalition Building, Intersectionality, and Disidentification.  


The sources of strength and resilience identified in the first-person narratives undermine stereotypes of transgender people as unfit for military service given the significant contributions transgender people have made to the military (e.g., high risk combat assignments, assuming roles of military leadership). These narratives also describe their significant contributions to the larger LGBT civilian community through activism following military discharge (e.g., several of the veterans assumed roles as national leaders for LGBT equality, provide social services to other LGBT veterans, and one person is running for Congress). Finally, these narratives also suggest distinctive benefits of intergenerational relations between LGBT veterans across military branch, war era, race/ethnicity, and sexual and gender minority status.

Conclusion and Implications:

Findings from the study reframe the common risk- and deficit-related discourse surrounding transgender veterans’ experiences into one of strength and resilience. By giving voice to transgender veterans’ resilience in the face of enormous obstacles and oppression, it is hoped that social workers recognize the strengths inherent in this population. Recommendations on how this information might be used to create culturally responsive, strengths based care for transgender veterans will be discussed.