Strength, courage, and valor are no longer the marks of a US soldier. No, now she must have YouTube-perfect makeup and hair voluminous enough for an Herbal Essences commercial.
That is exactly that message perhaps the most historically masculine institution in our nation has given to Tech. Sgt. Kristin M. Kingrey of the West Virginia Air National Guard. Despite proudly and honorably serving our nation for 14 years, Sgt. Kingrey alleges the National Guard is discriminating against her because she refuses to conform to what some stodgy officers think a woman can and should be.
By all accounts I’ve read, Sgt. Kingrey is the very model of a modern major general — or tech sergeant, as the case may be. The only problem anyone seems to have with her is that she has short hair and a more stereotypically masculine appearance. That’s a long way of saying she’s a butch lesbian. And as a gay man who currently dresses like a Baptist preacher’s wife, I had hoped we’d left all this tired gender stereotyping behind.
The treatment Kingrey alleges is awful. It includes being subjected to rumors she would transition (which is not itself shameful, but is private), and forced to try on another woman’s Honor Guard jacket in front of a group just to prove it did not fit her. She herself blames this horrid treatment on certain officers having preconceived notions of what women — especially lesbian women — should look like. In a lawsuit filed in federal court, Kingrey claims this culminated in one of the officers taking a female lieutenant colonel to lunch, where he requested she ask Kingrey “to grow my hair out and start wearing makeup because if I didn’t it would be detrimental to my career in the West Virginia Air National Guard,” the Daily Beast reports.
This story is so outrageous it beggars belief. Leaving aside the flipped script where suddenly femininity is the mark of a good soldier — surely a first in a hyper-masculine environment like the military — it is, if as Kingrey alleges, blatant sex discrimination.
Don’t believe me? Ask the Supreme Court.
In 1988, Ann Hopkins, an employee of accounting firm Price Waterhouse, claimed her employer asked that she “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.” When she did not, she was denied a partnership in the firm. The court ruled 6-3 in favor of Hopkins, establishing that gender stereotyping is an actionable offense under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on sex.
More than 30 years later, the Supreme Court would reaffirm this in Bostock v. Clayton County. Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman, was terminated by the funeral home she’d worked at for decades after deciding to transition. The funeral home was sanctioned under a Michigan anti-discrimination law and sued in federal court, claiming that firing Stephens for wearing “female” clothing was not sex discrimination but discrimination based on transgender status (as if that makes it better).
The court disagreed, ruling that “an employer who discriminates against homosexual or transgender employees necessarily and intentionally applies sex-based rules” by applying a double standard. If women can wear skirts, so can men; if a man can have short hair, so can a woman.
Unfortunately for Kingrey, none of this may matter. Courts have also ruled that Title VII applies to military departments, but not to members of the military. That means the precedents set in the Price Waterhouse and Bostock cases may not help her, even if her appearance and comportment is within regulations. But they do illustrate the discriminatory and amoral nature of such comments and behavior on the part of military brass.
It also illustrates the sheer lunacy of sexism. For years, opponents of women serving in combat argued that women were not masculine enough to fill combat roles. Now the problem is that one isn’t feminine enough? Sexists seem to want to have it both ways, despite facts, logic, and common decency being firmly on Kingrey’s side.
Brigadier General Elizabeth Hoisington told US News and World Report in 1978 that women generally “cannot match men in aggressiveness, physical stamina, endurance and muscular strength”. In doing so, she inadvertently revealed that the real opposition came not from material reality but because of sex stereotypes. “I think we should continue to have a legal bar against women in combat units — not because they are women but because the average woman is simply not physically, mentally and emotionally qualified to perform well in a combat situation for extended periods,” she continued.
As a class, women may not generally be as physically strong as men — but individual women may well be and should be evaluated as individuals on an equal footing with their male counterparts. It is “mentally and emotionally” that truly gives away the game, though. These rely on stereotypes of women as too fragile and sensitive to experience combat — arguments which persist to this day and are as steeped in sexism as they were 45 years ago.
This represents the double-bind women in the military seem to find themselves in. On the one hand, they are deemed too “feminine” for combat. On the other hand, the moment one steps out of femininity and into gender non-conformity or even masculinity, she is urged to get back in the woman box by… what? Putting on some makeup?
“My hair length has nothing do with my work ethic or job performance,” Sgt. Kingrey quite correctly stated. “I should be judged on my merit. But my seniors clearly think females should not have short hair. I do not conform to what they think a female should look like.”
We are one 79-year-old man away from having a female commander-in-chief. It is time these officers — and the armed forces of the United States — get with the times. If they can’t, I would suggest it is them, and not Sgt. Kingrey, who are unfit for service.
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