It’s Not My Body: Understanding Sex and Gender Issues in the Military

Written By Natalie Schroeder and Andrea Bowling
Researched By Natalie Schroeder

The box in the closet is calling my name. I know my roommates will not be back for a few hours, so I go to my closet and pull down the shoe box with worn edges. I open the lid and see the simple black flats with a delicate bow on the toe.

Walking over to my bed I flash back to high school when me and my friends decided to dress up as girls for Halloween. I laughed a little too hard and made a few too many crude jokes hoping that it would cover up that I felt more comfortable and a little more “me” being a girl.

The term “sex” refers to biological differences between males and females that are determined based on whether their father’s sperm was carrying an X or Y chromosome at the time of conception, as well as a range of chromosome complements, hormone balances, and phenotypic variations that occur at approximately 6 to 7 weeks in the womb, and cause the development of different reproductive cells and organs (Evans & Tolland, 2019; “Boy or Girl?,” 2008; “Gender and Genetics,” 2010; Wizemann & Pardue, 2001).

It is important to understand, however, that biological sex develops along a spectrum that ranges from male to female, but never falls at one end or the other – every person has both ‘male’ and ‘female’ hormones at varying levels within their body (Hess et al., 1997). Furthermore, it is estimated that about 1 out of every 1,500 live births, the child is born intersex – some children are born with neither XX nor XY chromosomes and some are born with XXY chromosomes; other things such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) and adrenal hyperplasia can also cause a baby to be born intersex (“How Common,” 2008). 

The term “gender” refers to the socially constructed differences in dress, speech, mannerisms, physical attributes, and other stereotypes typically associated with belonging to a certain gender category (Evans & Tolland, 2019).  Gender is also a spectrum – it does not have to be aligned with one’s biological sex and there can be more than two, as many people’s identities and physiological makeup do not fit into two rigid categories. Countries and cultures around the world, such as Canada, Argentina, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, officially recognize additional gender categories outside of the man-woman binary and offer passports that reflect these categories (“Gender X Passports,” 2020).  

Military personnel and Veterans face unique challenges based on their sex and gender identities. While most U.S. military personnel and Veterans are males, over 200,000 females are currently serving in the military and make up about 10% of the Veteran population (“By the Numbers,” 2013; “Facts and Statistics,” 2013). In addition, it is estimated that there are over 3,000 transgender individuals actively serving in the U.S. military and over 134,000 transgender Veterans (Schaefer et al., 2016; “Transgender,” n.d.).  

Males and females each face unique challenges in the military due to both physical and social differences associated with their sex and gender. Transgender individuals, however, often face the specific challenges of their preferred category in addition to the challenges of being a transgender person in the military. 

Graphic Designed by Natalie Schroeder

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) affects service members regardless of gender or biological sex. MST refers to a service member’s experience with sexual assault or sexual harassment during their service (“MST,” 2019).  

About 1 in 4 female veterans and about 1 in 100 male veterans in the VA healthcare system report experiencing MST (“MST,” 2019). Although women are at greater risk of MST, nearly 40% of veterans who disclose MST to the VA are men (“MST,” 2019). Furthermore, over 15% of transgender service members experience MST – 30% of transgender men and 15.2% of transgender women reported some form of military sexual assault in 2018 (Beckman et al., 2018). 

MST Resources 

Veterans and service members can receive MST care, free of charge, even if they do not qualify for other VA benefits. For more disability benefit information visit the VA’s MST fact sheet, click here and the VA’s Health Care Services for MST fact sheet click here, or contact your local Veterans Service Office. 

Safe Helpline  is a confidential system that provides live, one-on-one support and information to MST survivors. You can Call the Telephone Helpline at 877.995.5247, visit the Online Helpline by clicking  here, or download the free Self-Care App (iOS and Android). 

For MST legal services, click here

Male-Specific MST Resources: 

Strength and Recovery – Men Overcoming Military Sexual Trauma is a brochure from the VA that provides MST resources. 

Safe HelpRoom Sessions for Military Men is an online community of sexual assault survivors in the military that meets on Sundays. 

1in6 provides free and anonymous weekly chat-based support groups for male victims of sexual assault. 

For more MST information and resources, click here and here, or visit Know A Vet’s information and resource page. 

PTSD Resources 

Female Veterans with PTSD should call their local VA and speak to a Women Veterans Program Manager, as well as contact their local Veterans Service Office to be connect to resources in their area.  

To find a local support group for women with PTSD, click here

For more PTSD information and resources, visit Know A Vet’s information and resource page. 

Transgender-Specific Resources 

For transgender individuals, the VHA offers transition-related care such as hormone replacement therapy, medically necessary prosthetics (such as binders and dilators), voice coaching, and mental health services. However, transition-related surgical care is not offered by the VHA. To learn more, click here or contact your local Veterans Service Office.  

Some providers offer free or low-cost gender affirming treatment in some states, such as the Kind Clinic and Planned Parenthood

For a Gender Confirmation Surgery Costs and Fundraising Guide, click here

For help and guidance on changing your name on your DD214 Military Discharge Record, click here

Visit Know A Vet? for a list of resources for a wide range of issues and resources by zip code. Your local VSO can help connect you to other veteran or civilian organizations. To find your local VSO visit Know A Vet? and put your zip code in the box toward the top of the home page for your local Federal, State and County resources. 

Watch for future articles from Know A Vet? that will discuss other LGBTQ issues.

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