In 2017, President Donald Trump placed a ban on Transgender individuals serving in the US military and the whole world was in uproar at the controversial move. However, two years earlier, in 2015, an Irish Trans man suffered the same discrimination on our turf. He tells his story to Saoirse Schad.
Matthew O’Brien is a 26 year-old fitness instructor and insurance operations analyst. He applied to the Irish military when he was 21 years-old, considering it as a possible progression from his then-job as a bartender.
Matt is a fun-loving guy who is always looking for adventure, so he thought the military would be a natural fit for him. As well as that, he knew of the many benefits that come along with a military career, including job security, paid accommodation and escaping the 9-5 lifestyle. For Matt, it was a no-brainer and a perfect fit.
The problem is that the military didn’t feel the same way.
They wanted him to come off hormones that were sustaining his transition from female to male. They also wanted him to take himself off the list for top surgery, or else come back post-surgery.
In autumn 2015, Matt filled out a form online to start the application process, and he was then invited to complete an online psychometric test. The psych test covered five areas of ability assessment; error detection, orientation, number fluency, word rules and deductive reasoning.
“So, online psychometric testing on the second of October 2015, live from 1300 hours,” Matt says, reading from an email inviting him to do complete the first step of his application process. “It says there’s two different assessments; simple understanding of instructions and measurement of numeracy skills. So it’s not really like ‘oh, are you sane enough?’ It’s literally just, ‘can you understand instructions?’”
Matt succeeded at this first step and was then invited to a fitness test at a base in Dublin, to see if he was physically fit enough to join the military.
“That was the first one that kind of freaked me out a bit,” Matt recalls, telling me that he had to complete 20 sit-ups and 20 push-ups, each within a minute, as well as a reasonably long run.
“The run was the worst because I didn’t run,” he goes on to say, noting that male applicants had to run 2.4km in 11 minutes and 40 seconds, while female applicants had slightly longer to complete the challenge.
“We didn’t get the date [of the fitness test] until a week before or something and I kept pushing my running training because I was like ‘whatever, I’ll get to it’ and then I had my week and was like ‘oh, no!’ I went to run the distance and I didn’t make the time.”
Although Matt couldn’t initially complete the run in the allotted time, he trained non-stop between his invitation to the fitness test and the date of the test itself. When the day arrived, his hard work paid off because he completed the run with time to spare.
Next, he was invited to an interview which was conducted by a panel of three. It was at this point that Matt had to provide a birth cert, which included his birth name. Either they did not notice this detail or they noticed and took no issue with it because it did not come up in the interview.
“They asked why you wanted to be in the army,” Matt remembers, even adding that one of the interviewers commented on the passion he brought to the meeting. “At the end he was just like, ‘You really want this, don’t you?’ and I was like, ‘Yep.’”
But the story really begins at the next stage, the medical, the final part of the application process, because that’s when Matt was told the Irish military could not facilitate him.
“The medical is the last bit. Once you do that then you’re clear and you’re good to go,” Matt tells me. “You had to do a urine test as well, because obviously they’re gonna check that, but you had to pee with them watching you. So you weren’t allowed to close the stall door and your man was standing outside.
“That was before your main medical ... and then you’re kinda hanging around for the doc,” he goes on, recalling the fairly invasive nature of the entire medical process.
“I think it was a standard medical - like, if you were to go to your doctor for a checkup, it would be that. I remember when I sat down he was like ‘Okay, so take off your trousers’ and I was like ‘I’mma just tell you something first.’”
Matt describes the conversation he had with the doctor in which he revealed that he is a Trans man.
“He kind of looked confused so I was kind of sitting there looking at him and he was like, okay, so then he gave me a medical to match my anatomy. I thought that was horrifying. I knew it was what would have to happen, but it was still daunting.
“He had to fill out a sheet then as well, of any medication [I was] on. I think it asked you for previous surgeries or upcoming surgeries, so then I put that I was on a waiting list for whatever and then I said that I was on hormones. And then he said that that needed to stop if I wanted to progress my application and that I couldn’t be on a waiting list for surgery...”
The doctor asked Matt how often his hormones would need to be administered, so Matt told him once every three months.
“Then [the doctor] said I’d need to take a day off every three months then to take this. And I was like, I don’t take time off right now to do it, it takes two seconds. Then he was like, it’d be time with a nurse. But I told him it wouldn’t have to be because it can be self-administered.”
But still, the doctor would not pass Matt’s medical.
“So then I asked why. He said if you have to carry around bits for your hormones, that’s wasting space in your pack that could be used for something else.”
Matt then demonstrated the size of what he would need to carry with him. In the box, his hormones would take up little more space than an average smartphone. Without the box, which Matt wouldn’t necessarily need, it’s simply a tiny vial, no more than a few centimetres in length.
“You would need needles as well,” Matt tells me, “but there’s always a medical unit anyway so I wouldn’t have to supply my own needles.”
“[The doctor] was comparing it to if someone has diabetes and needs to take medication, he’s like, we wouldn’t take them either ... It really annoys me because, like, the amount of people that would have been going that would have been cis, and failing the fitness test or failing the psych and all this, and I’ve literally passed every single thing that they wanted.”
Pointing out that he had already given his previous name earlier on in the process, Matt said, “If they thought that they were gonna fail me on the medical, I don’t know why they let me keep going.”
There are so many unanswered questions about Matt’s unfortunate experience with the Irish military. For instance, why can’t a powerful government-funded institution like the army facilitate a soldier taking four short medical appointments in a year, the equivalent of not even one full day off?
Why then, if the soldier opts to self-administer his hormones, can the army not facilitate that soldier carrying those hormones in a vial which could easily fit into even a shirt pocket?
Is the military so poorly-equipped that they cannot accommodate these basic medical asks? Or is our military recruitment process discriminatory? And if so, is the problem one rogue doctor refusing to pass a healthy Trans man’s medical or is it institutional?
In light of Dr Tom Clonan’s investigative “equality audit” of the Irish Defence Forces, in which it was revealed that 59 of 60 female soldiers interviewed reported cases of bullying, discrimination and/or sexual assault, perhaps it would not be surprising to learn that military inequality extends to Trans individuals.
The ban on Trans people serving in the US military was a shocking and outrageous move by the Trump administration, one that hurt the LGBTQ+ community and shook many to the core. But maybe it’s time that we hold a mirror to our nation and take a long hard look at what our Trans brothers and sisters are facing at home in Ireland.
We need to be better than this. Matt deserves better than this.