The Lived Experiences of Transgender Service Members and Veterans

This past week I saw my research manifest into a panel discussion with three women who served in the U.S. military and identify as transgender.

As the president of GradPride, Georgetown University’s queer affinity group, my goal for this past semester was to “queer” veteran spaces and to elevate awareness of the transgender community, specifically those who have served in the military. Our community at Georgetown consists of ~1400 military-connected students, most of which are veterans. And, unsurprisingly, we (veterans) continue some of the hyper-masculine behaviors from the military that reject those who exist outside military-masculinit(ies). As someone who identifies as a gay man, I was often the recipient of verbal homophobic harassment because I wasn’t ascribed any forms of military masculinity.

With my experience in mind, and with this new role as GradPride president, I wanted to define the direction this year of GradPride within the intersection of queer identity and veteran/military identity. Further, given the recent changes in policy, I wanted to contribute to the dispelling of misinformation regarding the discriminatory policy construed as a medical disqualification by providing a stage for transgender veterans and service members to educate the Georgetown community.

We titled the event the Lived experiences of transgender service members and veterans because wanted to emphasize their journey from coming out to advocating for equal rights for other trans individuals. Through their narratives, they not only told us what they were doing, they showed us how they were doing it.

In total, we had over 70 folx in the audience which included 17 midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy.

To my left (I’m in the pink) tie is Karen Kendra Holmes, and to my right is Paula Neira and Charlotte Clymer. Also here are midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy with three officer reps (far left).

Key sites of engagement – Delegating work as a leader

The past few days, I’ve been thinking about “key sites of engagement” where a leader identity emerges (someone acts like a leader). And recently, I came across an article from the Harvard Business Review that a LinkedIn connection shared, titled “8 Ways Leaders Delegate Successfully”.

The authors cited a few studies evidencing the importance of delegating work – that it “increases productivity, morale, and commitment, all of which impact company culture”. Further, the authors also cite a 2015 Gallup study consisting of 143 CEOs on the Inc. 500 that showed “companies run by executives who effectively delegate authority grow faster, generate more revenue, and create more jobs”. In order to tackle complex problems (cf. complicated), leaders are recognizing the importance of distributing the work load. In other words, instead of having one person find and attempt possible solutions, a leader should recognize more heads are better than one.

This “more heads are better than one” concept lends itself to the importance of recognizing diversity of thought (and diversity) as a solid business practice for finding a range of ideas for challenging complex problems where there isn’t a single solution. In a workplace environment with diverse teams, leaders are equipped with a variety of lenses to look at a problem because diversity is a force multiplier.

From a linguistics standpoint, a balanced and diverse team is usually equipped with a wider range of communicative behaviors which (research has found) often leads to egalitarian working relationships characterized by mutual support.

Where the “8 Ways Leaders Delegate Successfully” falls short is the “How Leaders Delegate Successfully” which I believe can be investigated through linguistic approaches.

Judith Baxter, a linguist who investigated the language of leadership, in her 2015 study observed how a leader emerged in three different teams challenged with the same problem – building a paper tower that would judged on height, stability (strength), and aesthetics . One team was composed of all men. A second team was composed only of women. The third team was composed of a balance of women and men. 

Baxter found the participants relied on gendered discourse, ways of talking associated with perceptions of masculinity and femininity, in all teams. The team of men demonstrated competitive characteristics resulting in a hierarchal structure. The team of women demonstrated both competitive and egalitarian characteristics. The third team with both men and women crossed the gendered discourse boundaries. In other words, the men at times were consultative while the women were more assertive. In the end, the third team completed the challenge successfully which was attributed to the emergence of different but equal roles dedicated to the different judging criteria. Thus, as stated above, the third team not only demonstrated a wider ranger of communicative behaviors but also created different roles (instead of a single leader) to focus on the different judging criteria.

As Baxter demonstrates with her study, linguistic approaches are fine-grained analyses of language in use in various communicative contexts. “Words matter” and being cognizant of “how” we use words (and language) can help us be better leaders and create positive workplace environments.

When the communicative style misrepresents the message

In a truly diverse workplace that “embraces” inclusion, are we actually communicating effectively with our diverse audiences?

This week I attended the Washington DC Student Veterans of America (SVA) Summit because I recently joined (was hired by) the Georgetown University Veterans Office team as the graduate assistant. While I don’t play a leadership role in the Georgetown University Student Veteran’s Association (GUSVA), I want to be cognizant of the needs of other student veterans and service-connected students in order to better do my job. In the Veterans Office, we serve as a resource for prospective service-connected students who need help navigating the academic landscape as well as their VA education benefits. Additionally, we guide those students to various veteran-tailored resources (such as mental health, professional development, etc) on campus.

Within the veteran community, and especially in veteran spaces, I want to advocate for better diversity and inclusion (D and I) practices. Simply creating a “veteran space” and expecting veterans to come is ineffective at reaching all veterans even if the veteran space is accepting of all identities. While at the SVA summit, I spoke with a few participants about being accepting of all genders, all sexualities, and all individuals. However, the delivery of their message often conflicted with the actual message.

Judith Baxter (2010) identified a similar phenomenon in her data when she interviewed male CEOs from what she calls “gender-multiple corporations”. These corporations demonstrate a fluidity in gender roles as “boundaries between ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ have thus become more permeable” (p. 77) When the CEOs were asked to provide narratives (in an interview), the CEOs acknowledged the need for a relationally-oriented communicative/leadership style. However, they “were often quite unaware that they offered more traditionally masculine speaker identities in their narratives” (p. 92).

While speaking with one of the SVA participants about his leadership style at work, he said (paraphrased), “I don’t care if you’re a man, a woman, gay or lesbian, or transgender, as long as you do your job. If I have a problem with you, I am not going to dance around. I’m going to be direct and tell you”. Similar to Baxter’s observations, this participant demonstrated a “traditionally masculine speaker identity” characterized by assertiveness, directness, and confrontation. While I don’t question the veracity of his acceptance of diverse individuals – I think he could benefit from understanding his communicative behavior could possibly undermine his intentions.

Additionally, a reality of the “veteran identity” is that many people who had a tough time during their service may not want to identify as a veteran because it conflicts with their various other identities (gender, sexuality, etc). When I served during DADT, my military identity conflicted with my identity as a gay man. For women in the service, sometimes putting on the uniform is the only way to identify them as a service-member which conflicts with being “on duty 24/7”. So, if we want to create a truly inclusive environment of different diversities, we should be cognizant (linguistically aware) of our communicative behaviors and ensure they align with the desired audiences expectations.

Baxter, Judith. (2010). The language of female leadership. New York, NY: Palgrave McMillan.

Bridging the gap between cultural values and cultural practice with linguistic awareness

Earlier this week, I attended the second day of the Service Academies Global Summit. Throughout the plenary sessions and the panel discussions, I observed a common theme, the need for more diversity and the importance of communication (or language) in today’s leadership. I was particularly interested in the plenary session about developing leaders at the different service academies which included the Superintendents from the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA), U.S. Military Academy (USMA), U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) and U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCG) and the Commandant from the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA).

Lt. Gen. Silveria from USAFA identified the ability to adapt to changing environments as the foundation of the graduates of his academy. RADM Buono from USMMA, who also served as President and CEO of SeaRiver Maritime Inc., reflected on the difference between leadership in the military and leadership in corporate America where no one wants to make decisions. He argued the importance of the academies is to enable midshipmen (and cadets) to cultivate their decision-making abilities relative to the task at hand. With this in mind, Lt. Gen Silveria conveyed one of the roles of the academies is to be a “leadership laboratory”. As a laboratory, midshipmen and cadets can practice, as CAPT Buchanan from USNA states, leadership among peers which incorporate character development, core values, and professional competence.

I was particularly struck by Lt. Gen. Silveria recalling an incident from 2017 when he addressed the entire academy after a student at the USAFA Preparatory School wrote racial slurs on the message boards of African American cadets. In the video, his message is clear, “If you can’t treat someone from another race or different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.” During the panel, he extended his message and included individuals of different gender and sexual identities. In so doing, Silveria (re)defines USAFA as an institution where diversity is not only accepted, but embraced. He further indicates what practices are institutionally sanctioned. In other words, cadets at USAFA are expected to treat their peers of different ethnic, gender, and sexual identities with dignity and respect. Lastly, he’s defining his role, as superintendent, as the moral compass of the institution. And by agreeing with Silveria, the superintendents and the commandant extend Silveria’s sentiments to their own academies.

RADM Kelly, the superintendent at USCG, commended Silveria and remarked about the quality of the message in regard to the immediacy after the incident which further reflects Silveria’s outstanding leadership. Recalling Robinson’s (2001) definition, “Leadership is exercised when ideas expressed in talk or action are recognized by others as capable of progressing tasks or problems which are important to them” (p. 93). Silveria was able to succinctly address the incident, reinforce values, and provide direction for the cadets moving forward – to “engage in open discussion about the topic and focus on solutions”.

Ten years ago, prior to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, military leaders would not extend the same acceptance of diverse individuals to gay and lesbian servicemembers. And, women weren’t even able to serve in a variety of military roles until 2016. This stands in sharp contrast to the military (specifically the Army) of 1976 when then Army Chief of Staff, General William Westmoreland, stated, “The purpose of West Point is to train combat officers, and women are not physically able to lead in combat. Maybe you could find one woman in 10,000 who could lead in combat, but she would be a freak, and we’re not running the Military Academy for freaks” (Department of Defense, 2010, p. 86).

While Silveria’s remarks reflects the milestones and achievements in the military in regard to diversity, there is still much work to be done. The cultural values expressed by top brass military leadership emphasizing acceptance of diversity and inclusivity does not always play out in cultural practice. This is reflected in the various accounts of toxic leadership and increase in sexual assault in the military, as well as the micro-aggressions in gendered and homophobic language common in a masculine gendered institution. I’m not recommending a revamping of all things “gendered”, culturally insensitive or homophobic (although those things need to go). I’m recommending that linguistic awareness should be included in the the character development of our officers. That when we use specific types of discourses, we aren’t just using words, we’re perpetuating meaning and creating new meaning. In other words, when an individual uses racist, sexist, or homophobic language – they’re not only expressing themselves in an offensive manner, they’re also defining the workshop, office, or command as an environment where the ideologies of that type of language is acceptable.

Department of Defense, U.S. 2010. Report of the comprehensive review of the issues associated with a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

Do shared values influence trust? And is trust important in leadership?

I think the short answer-response is “sometimes” and it depends on the environment and context where one does leadership. But also, what exactly is trust? And what are values?

Rouseau et al. (1998) define trust as the “psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another” (p. 395) and can be further parsed into cognitive, affective, and behavioral bases (Mayer et al. 1995). In other words, what we think someone’s trustworthiness is, how we feel about that trust, and how we enact (do) trust.

Values are a little more abstract. Schaefer (2008) defines values as “conceptions of what is good, desirable, and proper” (p. 50) and can be categorized as personal, social, political, economic, and religious. An example of a personal value would be “loyalty” while a social value could be “equality” and “justice”. Institutions, such as branches of the military, have official “core” values. The U.S. Navy’s official core values are “honor, courage, and commitment”. The U.S. Army has seven official core values, “loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage”. The values of an individual (or institution) can influence what norms are developed and how moral judgements are made. Jones and George (1998) argue that shared values are the primary vehicle for individuals to experience trust. Thus, when institutions instill, or socialize, individuals with specific values, they’re setting up the individuals to trust one another.

In Gillespie and Mann’s (2004) study “Transformational leadership and shared values: the building blocks of trust”, they investigated how a specific leadership style (transformational, transactional, and consultative) combined with shared values can further foster trust. To do so, they used a series of questionnaires to evaluate leadership, trust and values among participants chosen from 9 teams from a research and development (R&D) organization. The participants consisted of the team leader and two team members from each team. The results found among the leaders and members of R&D teams, the combination of shared common values, idealized influence (a dimension of transformational leadership described as “communicating and modeling important values and a shared purpose” [p. 596] ) and consultative leadership was the strongest predictor of trust.

While Gillespie and Mann (2004) elaborated on the different dimensions of leadership practices, they did not elaborate on the different value systems the participants might draw from to foster trust. It would be useful to know if the R&D organization the participants worked for had official values stated in a mission statement, if the values were specific personal values, or if the general idea of “shared values” sufficed. Thus, the study would have shed light on whether the values shared are context-bound and if so, is trust (more or less) emergent in specific contexts?

In the context of the military, I’m curious how demonstrations of “official core values” influence the maintenance of trust. Or, do individuals rely on their personal values when trusting leaders? In my master’s thesis research, one individual remarked about her arrival at the Naval Academy that she was “expected to blindly trust the firsties (first class midshipmen responsible for indoctrinating incoming “plebes” or freshmen)”. She recalled questioning the firsties as authority figures because she did not believe their (limited) experience licensed them to be “leaders”. But, she then recalled her first tour on her ship as a Division Officer and expecting her sailors to “blindly” trust her despite no experience.

I hypothesize in institutions such as the military that other factors can override the existence of trust and shared values in order to successfully “do” leadership. In the case of my participant, when she stepped out in front of her division for the first time, her institutional authority licensed her to “do” leadership without trust, shared values, or experience. During DADT, my experience as a naval officer was leading sailors who trusted me despite their belief (which aligned with the discriminatory policy at the time) that I shouldn’t even be in the military. However, I feel as though working with these sailors, we either developed similar values or our values eventually became more aligned within the context of our duties and responsibilities. Thus, I either earned their trust through context-bound values or they simply respected my rank.

In my master’s thesis I looked at leadership style as a demonstration of power. After reading Gillespie and Mann’s (2004) work, I would be interested in expanding the study into looking at increased/decreased efficacy of leadership when considering shared values and the effects of trust.

Gillespie, Nicole and Leon Mann. (2004) Transformational leadership and shared values: the building blocks of trust. Journal of managerial psychology, 19(6), 588-607.

Jones, G., & George, J. (1998). The experience and evolution of trust: implications for cooperation and teamwork.(Special Topic Forum on Trust in and Between Organizations). Academy of Management Review23(3), 531–546

Mayer, R.C., Davis, J.H. and Schoorman, F.D. (1995). An integrative model of organisational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20(3) 709-34.

Rousseau, D.M., Sitkin, S.B., Burt, R.S. and Camerer, C. (1998), Not so different after all: a cross discipline view of trust (Introduction to special Topic forum), Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393-404.

Schaefer, R. (2014). Sociology matters (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

The transition from civilian to service member to civilian: the complexities of veteran identity

It occurred to me when I came across the comprehensive review by Borsari et al. (2017) that much of the research guiding existing programs to help veterans, ranging from mental health to acculturation within academic environments, begins with the transition and not before the transition and certainly not before the veteran’s military service. However, they all arrive at the same conclusion, that veterans need help managing and negotiating the change in identity from service member to civilian.

Before beginning a discussion on identity, I should define how I see and understand “identity” in a linguistics framework. Identity is not static. It is something managed and negotiated constantly. An individual can also have many identities which become relevant in different contexts. For example, a sailor at home can be “mom” or “dad” but at work they are “OS2” or “Chief”. Further, individuals have a repertoire of identities that they can perform. The sailor at home does “being mom” when she talks to her partner or child. She does “being Chief” when she corrects her DIVO and tells her sailors what to do. Ochs (1993) describes these as “social identities” and “social acts”. In order to display certain social identities, one performs certain social acts.

Of course, certain social identities are more significant than others and some social identities also intersect and affect each other. When “being Chief” requires the sailor to remain at sea for a 9-month deployment, she can’t do “being mom” for 9 months. These social identities are further complicated when they’re reenforced by institutional structures such as a difference in BAH predicated on the existence of dependents. Thus, “being Chief” for 9 months is compensated with economic advantages.

So what happens when a transition takes away one of these social identities? The short and unhelpful answer is, “it’s complicated”. However, I believe we can chip away at this complexity by investigating the development of certain social identities by looking at first the transition from civilian to sailor. In so doing, perhaps we can investigate how training for a rate or MOS in service leaves our service members at a disadvantage when they choose to separate.

Borsari, B., Yurasek, Mary Beth Miller, Ali M. Yurasek, and James G. Murphy. (2017). Student service members/veterans on campus: Challenges for reintegration. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 87(2), 166–175.

Ochs, Elinor. (1993). Constructing social identity: A language socialization perspective. Research on language and social interaction. 26(3). 287-306.