Military policy ban concerns Two Spirit veterans in Indian Country

Billie Two Feathers with her parachute on while in jump school in July 1967. (Photo courtesy of Billie Two Feathers)

Vietnam veteran Billie Two Feathers talks about how she survived the rigid military mindset as a transgender soldier.

Billie Two Feathers’ remembers her last six weeks in humid Saigon in 1968. She was attached to the Army’s general staff, the 101st airborne division. Her only job at the biggest hospital in the country was to check the roster each day and find out if soldiers were going back to the war zone, to Japan, home to the United States, or were dead.

Two Feathers had to make phone calls at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. That’s it. The rest of the days it was her time to spend how she chose.

Sometimes she made “PX runs,” or a trip to the retail store on base, picking up magazines, books, or cigarettes for the troops. (This is when smoking was allowed in hospitals.)

“That was the normal run of the mill thing for me to do,” she told Indian Country Today in a phone interview.

One day the hospital staff teamed up with people from Air Force to help a local orphanage where the children were half Vietnamese and half American. (“The Vietnamese discriminated against these children,” she said and figured the church would deal with them.) Bullet holes needed to be patched and broken windows needed to be fixed.

The workers “scrounged together building supplies -- boards, nails, window screens.” The window screens were important for the field because mosquitoes carried malaria.

At 6 feet and 2 inches tall Two Feathers, Oglala Lakota, stood above the children at the orphanage. One boy, who didn’t look like he was two, kept looking at her. The kid’s eyes stared at her feet and moved their way way up to her head amazed by her height.

Two Feathers got permission from a nun to pick him up and placed him on her shoulders and walked around. “He was king of the world at the time,” she said. She was familiar with children because she had six brothers and sisters ranging in ages 4 to 15 at the time.

She put him down. When she tried to walk off, another child sat her on boot holding onto her leg. She playfully dragged the child on her boot.

That day she occupied the kids while someone else got the work done.

“It was the closest I could show any kind of what was then considered feminine attitude,” she said while serving in the Army. “Showing caring, showing compassion.”

Two Feathers enlisted at 18 years old.

“I enlisted ... I enlisted … First of all, I needed to prove to myself that I wasn’t Two-Spirit or transgender,” she said.

The Supreme Court made ruling last week could impact the current transgender military policy put in place by Obama.

The Vietnam combat veteran knew she was different growing up -- and her dad also knew. Around the age of 10 or 12, he showed her the magazine with Christine Jorgensen in it, the first person to have sex reassignment surgery.

“I think you might be interested in this,” Two Feathers’ dad said and allowed her to look at the pictures. Jorgensen was drafted into the Army for World War II before having her surgery in Denmark in 1952.

“I’m 70,” she said. “That told me I wasn't alone. That there were other people somewhere out there that knew that well... you know I had... I described it as a unicorn being mislabeled as peas.”

She laughed and said, “I wasn’t up for explaining it.”

Two Feathers identifies as Two-Spirit, “an overarching term,” and pan-Indian, that describes Native people who are part of the LGTBQ+ community, wrote Rebecca Nagle.

The veteran said two-spirit people possess the feminine and masculine in some tribes. Many tribes also have their own word for these individuals. In western society, she identifies as transgender.

(READ MORE: Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders)

She even had her name change for spiritual reasons after she came out 21 years ago at the age of 49. And that wasn’t easy. (Two Feathers does not use her “dead name” because she was given a new life when she came out.)

“I talked with [Kristin Beck] and we both agreed that it was easier for her to come out than it was for me,” Two Feathers said about the retired U.S. Navy SEAL who came out as transgender woman in 2013. “I mean in high school if I had come out as transgender I would have been killed or severely beaten at the very least and hospitalized."

With the recent policy banning transgender people “temporarily,” Two Feathers is “afraid that [another Florida incident] is going to happen.”

“It scares the hell out of me sometimes,” she said.

“They were used to not having transgender people open. Now all of a sudden they had them open for a few years and then again the commander-in-chief says, 'Oops we can't do that. It's bad for morale,’” she said. “Excuse me. He's playing to his base.”

Recent transgender military policy

The transgender military ban that was announced last week goes into effect “temporarily” and gives a win to the commander-in-chief.

Temporarily doesn’t tell when but a defense official told the Marine Corps Times that no changes would be made to the Department of Defense’s policy nor would it be implemented just yet.

"It's been bothering me because it's just another damn lie that the government has done intentionally,” Two Feathers said. “Initially, it was good when Obama said, ‘Yeah, there's no problem.’ And they checked with the generals and they took a year to study. No, it wasn't a problem. And now it's blown way out of proportion. And of course it's another division. We're the minorities within the minorities.”

The policy would allow trans soldiers to serve “‘in their biological sex’ and do not seek to undergo a gender transition.”

Approximately 1,320 to 6,630 transgender service members actively serve out of 1.3 million active members, according to a 2016 study by the RAND Corporation, an independent global think tank. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain “due to current policies and a lack of empirical data.”

The legal system complicated the dispute last week.

One court order from the Supreme Court said the cases, Karnoski v. Trump and Stockman v. Trump, must go through the lower courts.

A second order said the ban goes “into effect temporarily while the cases against it proceed,” according to a statement from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders. Conservative justices outnumbered the liberal justices in the 5-4 vote.

A third case, Maryland’s Stone v. Trump, also challenging the policy wasn’t part of the decision. It is “currently being litigated in the district court,” wrote Harvard Law student Sarah Grant for Lawfare. However, with this injunction in place, there would be no change in the policy now, a defense official told the Marine Corps Times.

The fourth case, Doe v. Trump, wasn’t mentioned in the decision.

History

The policy of trans people serving in the military openly has been on the table since the Obama Administration.

Obama made the decision in 2016 to allow trans troops to openly serve in all branches of the U.S. military.

Trump reversed Obama’s decision in three tweets in July 2017.

“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” wrote the 45th President of the United States. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”

Within a two months, four cases were filed.

Obama’s policy allowed trans people to enlist starting Jan. 1, 2018. The costs of “trans-inclusive medical services, including gender-affirming surgeries” were included, according to Vox.

When the announcement came out about the military ban, Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, posted a photo on Twitter of a trans flag in front of her office in Washington, D.C. and released a statement.

“Transgender people have proudly and openly served our country for the past several years. Yet, equality is continuously under attack by this administration. Today’s Supreme Court decision to uphold this irrational ban is devastating for the transgender service members and enables blatant discrimination against transgender service members,” she said. “Preventing people from devoting their lives to their country simply due to their gender identity is a cruel affront on American values. I am incredibly disappointed by the Supreme Court’s refusal to uphold the rights of the transgender community. This irrational ban distracts from service, does nothing to promote military readiness, and directly opposes the American belief in coming together to support our country regardless of background.”

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth, retweeted Gov. Tim Walz’s, the state’s commander-in-chief of the National Guard, statement on his support for “transgender brothers and sisters in the military.”

“We stand with our transgender military members,” she said. “Thank you @GovTimWalz for working to ensure that those who risk their lives to protect us are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

The Pentagon released a statement to CNN and the Department of Defense News clarifying that the “policy is NOT a ban on service by transgender persons.”

"As always, we treat all transgender persons with respect and dignity,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Carla Gleason. “It is critical that [The Department of Defense] be permitted to implement personnel policies that it determines are necessary to ensure the most lethal and combat effective fighting force in the world. DoD's proposed policy is based on professional military judgment and will ensure that the U.S. Armed Forces remain the most lethal and combat effective fighting force in the world.”

Shane Ortega, retired staff sergeant who was an openly transgender man in the military, told MSNBC that he was “extremely disappointed” but he “wasn’t surprised” by it.

The Tuscarora and Cherokee veteran asked the news outlet, “What are we quantifying as combat effective in lethality, right?” and said he doesn’t “understand that logic” due to the history of women serving in the military.

“Historically we had said that women weren’t combat effective and that’s proven false. It proved false in World World II with female snipers. It’s proved false with women who were part of the Lioness Program and things like that. And with trans service members, we have trans service members serving in every capacity and job field within the U.S. military doing exemplary jobs,” Ortega said. “We have infantry men who aren’t capable to pass physical fitness tests and, yet, that kind of failure or lack of measure to stand up in these biologically-assigned gender roles is not scrutinized and why are we doing that then?”’

(Screenshot)

Trump blames the high costs of medical services for trans troops and says it’s a “disruption” to their jobs.

The RAND Corporation 2016 study says otherwise. Their findings show that the Department of Defense would incur “health care costs would increase by between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually, representing a 0.04- to 0.13-percent increase in active-component health care expenditures.”

Health costs cover surgeries but even 0.1 percent of those trans troops serving would undergo surgery because it “could disrupt their ability to deploy.”

The Military Times also compared the cost of trans-medical services and erectile dysfunction medications.

In 2017, the paper said that “the Defense Health Agency the year before spent $84.2 million on erectile dysfunction medications for active-duty troops, eligible family members and retirees.”

“Moreover, the military health system had filled nearly 1.18 million prescriptions for erectile dysfunction medications since 2014 and spent a total of $294 million on those drugs since 2011,” the paper wrote.

‘Overcompensating’

Twice over the phone to Indian Country Today, Ortega said, “The soldier is expendable.”

Merriam-Webster defines expendable as “normally used up or consumed in service” and “more easily or economically replaced than rescued, salvaged, or protected.”

Ortega was “very opposed to the military industrial complex.” He joined the military, as a woman first, so he could have better life. He completed three combat tours in the Marine Corps and Army, and transitioned while he served. A total of 11 and a half years.

“Had I been a woman, I wouldn’t have made it this far,” he said of the military mentality where masculinity needed to be proved.

Two Feathers agreed with the military’s “rigidness” due to its discipline “which is now in chaos.”

Her time serving was spent always overcompensating, she said. Overcompensating to be more masculine and to hide who she was each day.

“I mean I did everything I could possibly do to hide the fact of who I was inside and a lot of times it was nearly going to this daily routine of trying to stay alive and help my friends stay alive,” she said while drinking hot chocolate in the subzero-weather of Wisconsin.

Billie Two Feathers, centered and standing in a steel-pot helmet, is pictured with her Pathfinder Class 2-68. She received this photo from the son of the guy holding the flag. She only has three photos of her in the military. “They didn’t want anyone to know where I was. I had a bounty on my head. The Vietnamese government wanted us dead,” said Two Feathers. (Photo courtesy of Billie Two Feathers, Oglala Lakota)

Two Feathers was grateful for her training as an U.S. Army Pathfinder in Fort Benning. She started in airborne infantry and was asked to be a pathfinder, she said.

“At that time, if somebody asked what it was, we were told straight out to kill them. If you have to ask, you do not need to know,” she said. “If he found out, I may have to kill you.”

It was easier to take all the courses and get into the special forces than go through the U.S. Army Pathfinder School, a school that started during WWII to guide aircraft to a target zone, she said.

Pathfinders are described as a “‘ghost unit’ whose primary mission was to infiltrate areas and set up parachute drop zones and helicopter landing zones for airborne and air assault missions,” wrote Two Feathers on Facebook.

The training was tough. Those in pathfinder training learned long-range reconnaissance, land navigation, learned how to read a map and use a compass to get from one place to another, air traffic control ground to air traffic control, set up airstrips, parachute in or repel from helicopters, set up drop zones, and set up the landing for helicopters.

Two Feathers said they also had to learn how to use all that weapons the U.S. had up to the 50-caliber machine gun and the AK-47. At that time, the AK-47 was new and on loan to them from the Israelis, she said.

“It’s physically demanding. It’s mentally demanding,” she said. “We had a 12-minute life expectancy.”

At point point during the training they had to survive one week in the swamps with three meals of rations.

“Of course, I ate snake,” she said. “Grapes.” And they ran into alligators.

(READ MORE: 8 Things You Should Know About Two Spirit People)

Even though she was a man at the time, she had to work harder than other men to prove she was better and to hide any hint of femininity.

“It was so... the division between masculinity and femininity was just black and white. No between,” she said. “So I took on the responsibilities special ops. Even that was a regular soldier I took on responsibilities that others wouldn't because I had the training for it.”

Today she still runs into people who don’t see the grey area, especially within the Native communities where many Indigenous nations held Two-Spirit people in high regard. They were even warriors.

Two-Spirits in the military

Raven E. Heavy Runner, Blackfeet, speaks of the same Two-Spirit people Two Feathers mentioned: Lozen and ‘Finds Them and Kills Them.’

Lozen, Chiricahua Apache, fought alongside Geronimo, Heavy Runner said who served as a combat medic from 1986 to 1989.

She fought for Geronimo from 1880 until 1886.

“Lozen is my right hand. Strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy, Lozen is a shield to her people,” said Warm Springs Chief Victorio, according to Will Roscoe’s book.

Finds Them and Kills Them, Crow, was the warrior name for Osh-Tisch, said Heavy Runner, who is also Two-Spirit. The Crow respected Osh-Tish as a Crow Badé, or Two-Spirit. He saved his people in the Battle of the Rosebud in 1867.

(READ MORE: Metis Photographer’s Two Spirit Project is Shaking Things Up)

These are people who are not often talked about because Christianity exists within Native communities, said Heavy Runner. He found another story about Running Eagle, which is “more contested” about 10 years ago in a book.

Heavy Runner said Running Eagle, Blackfeet, died in a battle in Glacier National Park, which is part of the tribe’s territory. There’s a place called Running Eagle Falls in the park that was named after she was buried up there.

“Because people have not heard of them, they don’t realize Indigenous peoples have this very colorful history and its ability to use all of the society to support each other,” Heavy Runner said.

He said Two-Spirit people “had a place within our society.”

“Historically, we were given these names that were positive names from our community and they were the ones who told us who we are in regards to the role you will play in your community and it varied on the situation,” he said. “Some of Two-Spirits were the historians and teachers and ones who doctored the sick and the ones that buried the dead because there was so many taboos around it and handled by the correct person because they felt that these people were in the betweens and they looked at the in-betweens of life and death, heaven and earth male and female, and they were the best person to fulfill a lot of these roles.”

“I don’t see that in the LGBTQ world,” he said.

Treaty negotiations also couldn’t happen unless they were present.

Heavy Runner said “hints” of these same roles can be found in European history in the pre-Christian.

When Christianity came, which is a male-centric religion, he said many of these roles disappeared.

Today, Native people have the “highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.”

For Two-Spirit troops, that number is smaller.

“There’s very few of us [Two-Spirit veterans],” said Two Feathers.

It’s a struggle to be Two-Spirit and to be a veteran, too. Two Feathers had issues with the veterans administration in Minnesota after she came out in the late 90s. Complaints were filed but she said she got nowhere. She doesn’t have problems with them today.

(READ MORE: Musician Tony Enos: Welcoming Two Spirit Family Back into the Hoop)

The country comes up with new problems with transgender people even with discrimination laws. There’s a difference in policy and procedure within any agency, she said. It’s a matter of interpretation and not being consistent.

The days of not being arrested for a man impersonating a woman or a woman impersonating a man are gone. But the challenges that remain for Two Feathers are doing basic human activities like using a public restroom.

However, like she did to the teenager who confronted her about her identity in the front of the restroom, she will stare them in the eye and tell them, “I’m still better than you. Out of my way. I’m a veteran.”

“Being Two-Spirit, it's a blessing and a curse,” she said. “I look at things a lot differently than general society because of it. I can’t understand why people can't accept people for who they are. That’s the old traditional way. People were just accepted and everybody was respected because they had certain roles in the community that they fulfilled because they found their niches.”

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter - @jourdanbb. Email - jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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