Just The Tip: Healing from Abuse in the Military

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Just the Tip is a sex and relationship column hosted by queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. Here you will find interviews with sexuality researchers and educators as well as smart and compassionate responses to anonymous questions. If you would like to be interviewed or have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email  justthequestions@gmail.com or DM Jera on Twitter @thejerabrown.


So my name is [redacted] and I have rejected my own sexuality because of the abuse that I went through during my army days from 05’- 15’. 

I believed lies about me and ended up rejecting who I was along with my abuse and abusers because when it came down to it I believed them as I was at a stage where I believed every NCO and officer had my well-being in mind when training me up to be an excellent soldier.

Little did I know, this would backfire for me from then on until up till last year- which has been about 12 years for now.

My questions are these, have you any advice on how to further heal and to reverse the damage that I’ve caused by rejection my body and sexuality? And do you know of anyone who went down this same route?

For this topic, I interviewed Jess Homan, MSW, LISW-S who is a clinical therapist and the Education Coordinator at Clintonville Counseling and Wellness. She is the former LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator for the Veterans Association in Columbus, Ohio, and the former LGBTQ Lead for VAs in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.

The experiences of the person who wrote into my column are common for LGBTQ+ folks and women in the military. In this piece, we’ll look at some of the issues queer folks face, how to find help, and some starting points to begin the healing process.

Issues Facing LGBTQ+ Folks in the Military

Here are some of the issues facing LGBTQ+ veterans and those in active service.

Ban Against Trans Folks

In 2019, the Trump administration implemented a ban against transgender individuals from active military service. Although members of Congress are working on legislation to end the ban, it is currently in effect. 

Increased Threat of Depression and Suicide for LGBTQ+ Veterans

LGBTQ+ veterans are twice as likely as heterosexual/cis-gendered veterans to experience depression and suicidal ideations.

Increased Health Disparities

According to mentalhealth.va.gov: “LGB Veterans experience lower overall health status and rates of routine and preventive care, as well as higher rates of smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, discrimination, stigma, exposure to physical/sexual violence, trauma experiences, HIV, STIs, asthma, some cancers, and risk for mental illnesses. This includes LGB veterans’ increased rates of PTSD and depression.”

Lack of Protection for Abuse Victims

  • One study found that LGB veterans were twice as likely to experience sexual assault in the military.
  • In Fiscal Year 2018, 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped. 59% of penetrative sexual assault was by someone with a higher rank. 
  • 59% of women who report a sexual assault face retaliation, which is why over 76% of victims did not report the assault.
  • There was a 22% increase in sexual assault reports since 2015, but convictions fell almost 60%. According to Jess, “It is an awful, terrible process that usually does not end in the victim’s favor.”

Continued Stigma Against LGBTQ+ Individuals

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was active from December of 1993 through September of 2011. “It was meant to be a compromise, but it turned into a way to have witch hunts for LGBTQ people,” Jess explained. Since its repeal, the general acceptance of LTBTQ+ folks in the military is getting better, but just as it is in the general society, there’s still a long way to go.

Homophobia is reinforced by the military’s reliance on toxic masculinity. An attempt to live up to unrealistic standards of masculinity harms everyone, but especially those who already defy it through their gender or sexual orientation. A huge study of over 3500 veterans found that “the more veterans believed they should be tough and appear unemotional, the more likely they were to develop PTSD, have severe PTSD symptoms, and avoid seeking mental health treatment for those symptoms.”

Insider.com reported: “The research also noted that after experiencing trauma like combat or sexual abuse, many veterans took their masculine traits to an even greater extreme, presumably in an effort to counter the very non-traditionally masculine feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness that traumatic experiences can bring on.”

The Identity Struggle Isn’t Just About the Military

Struggling with one’s sexual orientation or gender is common for LGBTQ+ folks, regardless of military service. It’s part of the culture we live in that values heteronormative relationships, doesn’t see gender as a spectrum, and so on.

So it makes sense that many people are already struggling with their identity when they join the military. “A lot of times, people will join the military to try to prove to themselves that they aren’t trans, they aren’t gay,” Jess explained, “I have definitely worked with a lot of trans women in particular who joined the military to try to prove their masculinity when they’re really struggling with identity.”

According to Jess, lesbian and bi-identified women are twice as likely to join the military as the general population. Trans individuals are twice as likely to join, as well.

For many, military service only serves to conflate issues surrounding one’s identity. But there are opportunities for the VA to provide assistance, as well.

Benefits The Veterans Association (VA) Offers

Jess noted that the VA is not run by the military; however, there is a federal goal for 40% of VA employees to be veterans. This reinforces military culture when folks get out and are seeking help.

Each clinic operates very differently, and some are more inclusive than others. And Jess explained that the VA offers many benefits that LGBTQ+ folks don’t realize they offer.

For folks interested in transitioning, the VA offers hormone replacement therapy, pre and post-op care for gender affirmation surgery including laser hair removal for genitalia prior to surgery, voice feminization through speech pathology, prosthetic items such as packers, binders and breast forms, as well as free wigs. 

Individuals can get Truvada for PrEP at a much cheaper rate than other places.

Many VAs have a Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator. And for individuals who would prefer to get support outside of the VA, many clinics have an LGBT Care Coordinator to help vets find community partners. The LGBT Veteran Care Coordinators can also assist individuals in getting connected with LGBTQ friendly providers within the VA system.

Starting Points Toward Healing

If you’re working through trauma and/or major questions about your identity, both Jess and I strongly encourage you to seek the assistance of a mental health professional. 

This doesn’t have to be someone associated with the VA, but we recommend finding someone who has worked with veterans in the past and is LGBTQ-affirming. The VA’s LGBT Care Coordinator can help with this process. Or you can use Psychology Today’s therapist finder where you can filter by insurance, etc.

But if you’re not ready to seek this help or you’re in the process of looking for the right person, there are things you can do for yourself.

1. Name and acknowledge your story

The first step is to simply start talking. “The only way that we’ll really get through the trauma that we’ve endured, the things that we pushed down deep, is by really unpacking and talking about them while we start the healing process,” Jess said. She often uses a quote by Brené Brown with her clients:

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Your story includes who you’ve been told you are, and who you know that you really are. It includes the trauma you’ve experienced, but also how you’ve endured it. As you begin to unpack your story, you’ll discover new truths about who you are. 

If you’re not ready to share your story with others, Jess recommends journaling as a starting point.

2. Lean into people who love you unconditionally

Many folks with trauma struggle with histories of betrayal. For instance, the veteran who wrote in learned that COs he trusted did not actually have his best interest in mind. 

It’s really hard to heal when you’re isolated. “Even if you’re just being very general about your experiences, having somebody in your life that can validate you and just sit with you and empathy can be really powerful,” Jess said.

Start small and allow folks to earn your trust and earn more of your story.

3. Reach out for help when you need it

“Vulnerability and being able to ask for the things that you need is such an incredible strength that is not valued a lot in our society or at all in the military where you’re told to push down those feelings, to suck it up or man up.,” Jess said.

Jess recommends making a safety plan for yourself for when things get dark. This could be identifying warning signs, identifying people and activities to distract yourself, and to identify professionals to contact in moments of crisis. And you might need to work on acknowledging that you’re deserving of help. This is something to continue telling yourself.

4. Cultivate a gratitude practice

Jess recommends writing different things down daily that you’re grateful for about your life and about yourself. “It might be a simple as being grateful for your feet that carry you throughout your day.”

This practice helps you find value in your life and within yourself that might be counter to what you were taught to value in the military. It’s a journey for many of us to build a solid base of self-worth that’s not about what we’ve accomplished or specific metrics we check-off.

Jess explained that there’s a process for finding value in all sorts of things, such as finding worth in your connections to your family or volunteering or being a good friend.

The flip side of this is rejecting things that invalidate your self-worth. If you have toxic relationships with your family, for instance, they don’t need to be part of what you value in yourself.

You, now, get to decide what you value and what you’re grateful for. This is something you get to own for yourself.

5. Make small changes

Struggling with questions of identity and working through trauma can be daunting, especially when it’s paired with PTSD and/or depression.

It’s okay to focus on small changes. A friend of mine was given the advice to focus on simply doing one thing a day for himself until that felt manageable and he could do more.

Jess recommends trying something for five minutes and then giving yourself permission to stop if it doesn’t feel good. For instance, you can try meditating or writing down things you’re grateful for. Set a timer for five minutes.

“What might happen is once you actually get started doing that thing, the momentum will keep you going and you’ll able to be successful with it or have more success than you would’ve without trying,” she said. “Something is better than nothing.”

5. Give it time

Jess noted how we often search for quick fixes in our culture, and that just isn’t the case with mental health: “You’re not always going to find a therapist that’s a good fit for you right away. And sometimes it takes several tries. You’re not always going to get on a mental health medication that’s going to work right away, either, and you might have to try different doses or different combinations.”

And just like it takes time to find the right help, it will take time to own your story. Jess shared some last thoughts for the person who wrote in, which apply to everyone who finds themselves in similar situations:

“This person who wrote in with these questions, I want them to know that you’re valid, that other people share that story too and that you’re not alone in this. And it’s going to take a long time to heal and to really love yourself and accept yourself for who you are because for so long you were told that who you are is wrong or that you’re not really who you are. It’s going to be a journey of healing.”

Resources

 Jess notes that there are private groups on Facebook and other social media sites that people can search for, as well.

Photo by Jessica Radanavong on Unsplash

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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.