On Tuesday night, NBC News’ Courtney Kube reported that an active-duty member of the U.S. military underwent “gender transition surgery” after receiving approval on a waiver permitting the procedure.
The outlet went on to say that it was “the first such procedure approved under a waiver allowing the Pentagon to pay for the operation,” a vague statement with lots of holes in it that others were quick to fill in with their assumptions about trans people’s bodies and their ignorance about transition-related care.
“Pentagon to pay for transgender soldier’s surgery despite Trump’s ban,” read Vox’s headline to their story about the report, a clear attempt to tie this news to our SEO keyword-in-chief. The article’s author, Senior Reporter German Lopez, paid particular focus to the waiver that approved the service member’s surgery, inferring that it must have something to do with Pres. Trump’s efforts to ban trans military members from serving openly.
BuzzFeed Deputy News Editor Joe Passantino made inferences of his own, tweeting: “Pentagon confirms an active-duty member received sex-reassignment surgery today, and it will pay for the procedure for the first time.”
These and a number of other stories stemming from the NBC News report are all pretty encouraging to read. I mean, we’ve got a trans person receiving the medical care they need, we’ve got a government body defying Trump’s orderswhat’s not to love? There’s just one problem: They’re all kind of wrong.
While an active-duty member of the military did undergo “gender transition surgery,” which many trans people prefer to call gender confirmation surgery, neither approval for the surgery nor the Pentagon’s decision to pay for it were in defiance of Trump’s trans military bana ban that does not actually exist yet and, pending a decision next February, would not even be implemented until March 23, 2018 at the earliest.
The approval waiver the service member obtained had nothing to do with the proposed ban, but rather the fact that they would need to undergo the procedure at a civilian hospital rather than a military facility.
“[NBC News] went to break this story before I could get back to them,” said David Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman and U.S. Army Major. “Everything that took place is completely in adherence with the current policy.”
“If a service member has a medical procedure that the military’s medical professionals deem medically necessary and the military medical facility cannot perform the procedurethen the waiver is issued, which allows the supplemental health care program to pay for the procedure to take place at a medical facility outside of the military system,” told INTO.
As for whether or not this was the first time that the Pentagon had agreed to pay for a trans service member’s “gender transition surgery,” Eastburn couldn’t say, although he did tell me that “a surgery of this nature is very rare.”
Chase Strangio, a Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union known for representing Chelsea Manning and Gavin Grimm, told INTO that it’s definitely not the first time the Department of Defense’s health care system has paid for a transition-related surgical procedure.
“We know of people who have gotten these procedures. Advocates, the service members themselvesso many people can confirm that this is absolutely not the first [transition-related surgical procedure paid for by the Pentagon],” Strangio said.
“It’s possible that this article is trying to say that it’s the first time someone received a vaginoplasty [or another specific transition-related surgical procedure] since Trump’s tweets [about the proposed ban].”
“I don’t know, but they must have thought something was new about it,”he continued.
But was this the first time the Department of Defense had covered a trans service member’s breast reduction? Their tracheal shave? Their facial feminization surgery? Pentagon spokesman David Eastburn declined to specify, on record, exactly what kind of “gender transition surgery” the unnamed service member received, citing the HIPAA Privacy Rule and a personal desire to respect that individual’s privacy.
Which is fair! None of us need to know what kind of surgery this individual underwent on Tuesday. I can make peace with that, obviously, but I’m still super troubled by the lack of effort and clarity that appears to have gone into disseminating this story in the first place.
Did the journalists involved ask themselves or their sources the kind of questions I did? Did they know that there isn’t just one “sex reassignment surgery” or that not every trans person is cool with people calling the procedure a “sex reassignment surgery?”
These are pretty basic questions that anyone familiar with transition care might ask themselves when reading about the Pentagon paying for a trans service member’s “gender transition surgery.” Did the reporters tasked with covering the story do the same?
“There’s widespread confusion over the nature of health care for trans individuals and the different treatments, surgeries, and medical interventions trans people need,” said Chase Strangio of the ACLU. Not stopping to learn those differences indicates “indifference” on the part of the reporter covering the story.
“There’s not some magical surgery trans people receive that turns a man into a woman or a woman into a man,”he toldINTO. “Factually, that’s just untrue.”
“It also really discounts the authenticity of our lives.”