The Pentagon formally recognized earlier this month that there are transgender veterans — a step that LGBT advocates say is a long way from open transgender service in the military, but also a significant first step in that process.

In a short letter dated May 2, a Navy official told Autumn Sandeen, a veteran and transgender activist: “Per your request the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) has been updated to show your gender as female effective April 12, 2013.”

Sandeen’s military identification card now reflects the change, a move called “quite significant” by the head of OutServe-SLDN, a national organization for LGBT service members and veterans and their families.

“The fact that a process exists [to change the gender listed] indicates that there are people in the Department of Defense who are aware of the needs of transgender retirees and who are working to see those needs met. And, in that sense, the significance of this symbolic act for our broader work and for our goal of open service becomes I think a little bit more apparent,” OutServe-SLDN executive director Allyson Robinson told BuzzFeed.

Although gay, lesbian and bisexual service members have been able to serve openly since September 2011, transgender people — those whose self-perception of their gender does not match the gender they were assigned at birth — continue to be discharged if they try to serve openly.

Sandeen had previously worked with the National Center for Transgender Equality to establish the standards used by the Department of Veterans Affairs for addressing transgender issues, and she also had changed her gender with other governmental entities.

“I have now done California, the Veterans Administration, State Department with a passport, and the Social Security office, I have changed all of this,” she said. “The one last place that shows me as male is the Department of Defense — from being a retiree there.”

Despite being a veteran, Sandeen is still listed in DEERS — a system generally used for current service members — because many veterans have their records and many of their benefits maintained by the Department of Defense, rather than the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robinson said.

Sandeen decided to address the fact that the Pentagon still listed her as a man by asking the Navy to change her gender to female.

“I had heard that it could be done; I had never heard of anybody actually doing it. So, I went and called up OutServe-SLDN, and told them, ‘OK, what I did with NCTE and checking the system there [in the Veterans’ Affairs Department], trying to find out what the rules are, what do you want me to try and do to see what … policy is.’ And they said, ‘If you can just show us that it can be done.’”

Sandeen did, submitting the documentation requested, and then, in May, receiving the notification that the change had been made.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that the Department of Defense has recognized and affirmed a change of gender for anyone affiliated, in a uniformed capacity — in this case a military retiree. That alone makes it very significant, not just for this veteran herself, but for likely thousands of others who can have these corrections made to their DEERS documents,” Robinson said.

Sandeen said she saw it as a path forward for more movement.

“By showing you can actually change your gender marker with the Department of Defense, it shows that the Department of Defense actually will do that, and if they do that then it’s another stop toward figuring out a way to have open service for trans people,” she said.

Robinson noted that the decision itself is “limited in its reach” because “[i]t does not go back and correct historical records that the Department of Defense maintains on retirees, but it does correct all documents going forward, including the ID cards that veterans are issued that allows them access to the same kinds of military facilities that active-duty service members have.”

Robinson pressed the importance of that change because it would mean that trans military retirees would have ID cards coded with the gender that the retiree would be presenting themselves as if they were using a military service.

“When transgender people are inadvertently outed on documents that don’t match … that they become more susceptible to harassment and discrimination, more likely to face those kinds of responses. In a broad sense, having documentation that matches one’s day-to-day presentation of gender is very important,” Robinson said.

The limits to the move are significant. As both Sandeen and Robinson noted, the military will not alter the gender listed on a DD-Form-214, the Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, because the Pentagon considers it to be an historical document.

Sandeen, though dissatisfied with the military’s unwillingness to alter that form, said the DEERS change is an important first step.

“They’re starting with ‘you can change your reported gender with the Department of Defense,’ and then [transgender people can] take that into the next couples of questions: ‘Why can’t we update our DD-214s?’ and ‘Why can’t we serve openly?’” she said.

“I would say that it is a very early and very small step in a long process to achieve our goals here,” Robinson said. “But, it is significant, as the earliest steps always are, because it reflects a shift, even if it is a small one, in the way that transgender people are viewed within the institution of the United States military.”

For Sandeen, it is that simple. “I’d like to see trans people being able to serve openly, and that’s my end, and I think this is going to be a step to get there,” she said.

UPDATE: Department of Defense spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen released the following statement to BuzzFeed Thursday afternoon:

For the last several years, the Department has made requested changes to gender in the Defense Eligibility Enrollment Reporting System (DEERS) for military retirees. A gender change in DEERS may be accomplished by the retiree presenting the following documents:

– A letter from the doctor who performed the surgery, documenting completion of a gender reassignment surgery
– A court order, legally changing the gender in accordance with applicable state law
– An original birth certificate
– A document, reflecting the sponsor’s name and if applicable, gender following completion of the gender reassignment procedure for a spouse

The Department will not change a gender in DEERS if it results in a loss of benefits to the spouse of the retired member due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

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