US President Donald Trump says transgender personnel will no longer be allowed to serve in America’s military, a decision potentially affecting several thousand servicemen and women. In Finland there’s no legal ban on military service. But life remains complicated for trans troops, or transgender citizens who want to serve their country.
“Many female-to-male trans people have taken part in army service” says Maarit Huuska, Senior Social Worker at the Seta Trans Support Centre. Seta is Finland’s national human rights organisation for LGBTQI+ people.
“Some had terrible experiences of hiding their identity from the army […] some were happy they went” she adds.
Huuska explains that only 50% of female-to-male trans persons in Finland undergo gender reassignment surgery, so while hormonally and legally a man, they still retain some female features.
“I know some young men [female-to-male trans] who have wanted to go to the army, but hesitated because of their body characteristics and thought it could cause a problem. They worry if they are revealed as trans, would they be bullied by the group?” Those men opted instead for civil service, Huuska notes.
“I think that of course the group dynamic would influence this question, should they [trans persons] be open about their situation or stay private?” asks Huuska. “If they choose to be open to having a trans background, what would the reaction be in this group, the colleagues they’re serving with?”
No Barrier to Service
Finland’s Defence Command says that every year, there are certainly “some” transgender men and women who show up for for military service at age 18. They don’t keep statistics, but say they’re not aware of any current serving professional transgender military personnel.
Conscription, reserve duty obligations, and gender transition are carefully handled.
“We have a principle that if woman makes transformation into a man before the age of 30, which is the maximum age to do the obligatory conscript service, he also becomes liable for military service” says Esa Janatuinen, a senior adviser in Defence Command’s Training Division.
“Also if a man makes a transformation into a woman before she has done the conscript service she is not any more liable for military service. But if she has done the conscript service before the gender transformation she stays as a reservist”.
Conscripts have a medical exam, and can raise issues connected to their transition with a doctor at that time, says the Defence Command. Each year, around ten trans people request an exemption from military service on medical grounds connected to their transition status.
Attitudes to Military Service
A 2014 study into the attitudes and experiences of Finland’s ‘rainbow youth’ by psychologist Katarina Alanko found that one major concern for trans teens thinking about military service, was the perception of the ‘macho’ culture in the military, and the fear of not fitting in.
However, some 60% of trans persons who responded to a survey carried out by Alanko said the military’s attitude towards gender minorities had no effect on how they performed their conscription service.
From a commander’s perspective, unit cohesion is one of the most important aspects of military life.
“I have commanded troops at many levels, from squad to brigade […] and regardless if they are conscripts, reservist or professionals we always have zero-tolerance against unethical conduct or harassment with regard to gender, LGBT, origin or anything else” says Anders Gardberg, Brigade Commander of Nylands Brigade from 2008-2011.
“All kinds of harassment or internal disputes affect the performance of the unit, so in my own opinion, although I am pretty biased, the Finnish Defence Forces have succeeded rather well in creating an open and inclusive atmosphere, although there is always work to be done” concedes Gardberg.
The American Perspective
In the US, President Trump’s Twitter announcement about a new ban on transgender personnel was met with broad support from his conservative base, but faced criticism from human rights groups; LGBTQI+ advocates; political opponents and former military officers; and wary pushback at the most senior levels of military command.
“When Trump announced his outright ban it caught everyone by surprise” says Fred Wellman, a former Colonel in the US Army who served combat tours in Iraq, and who now runs a consulting company in the US state of Virginia that advises on military veteran issues.
“Thankfully most veterans service organizations immediately and clearly denounced banning their service outright. This was based on not just it being discriminatory but also on the potential number of service members you are talking about kicking out” explains Wellman.
“We have an all-volunteer military and the idea of kicking out some 2,000 or more otherwise perfectly capable troops makes no sense. The Department of Defense’s own study from RAND showed that transgender service has no impact on readiness at all”.
Wellman doesn’t think that the ban will survive a court battle, because President Trump himself said it was based on issues of readiness for transgender personnel, while the military’s own research showed the opposite.
“It will be a protracted court fight that will end in an inevitable loss for Trump. He will blame the courts for overstepping their bounds and then life will go on just like before”.