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Creating a Respectful Gender Culture for Those in the Military

Affirmative Care for Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Persons

With an estimated 14,700 transgender service members[1] and an unknown number of non-binary service members, professionals providing care for those in the military must know how to competently respond to the unique needs of transgender and gender non-conforming people. Magellan Federal counselors create a respectful culture by staying well-informed and striving to avoid communication mistakes, and here’s how you can too.

Stay Well-Informed

It’s important to first understand transgender and non-binary identities so that you can refer to individuals in a respectful way.


The transgender frame includes people who were assigned female at birth who now identify as male (transgender men or trans men) and those who were assigned male at birth who now identify as female (transgender women or trans women).


The transgender frame also includes people who identify as both male and female, identify as a gender(s) in between the two points on the gender spectrum, or do not identify with a gender. These gender identities, which are outside the binary identities of “man” and “woman,” are known as non-binary gender identities. It is important to keep in mind that a person’s gender identity develops and changes over the course of their life.

Identity Terms and Labels

Respect the words people use to describe themselves. People who identify as transgender or non-binary use many different terms to describe their experiences, and not all terms fit all people. It’s important to ask people what language they want you to use. It’s okay to ask someone for their preferred name and pronouns. Always use the name and pronouns they tell you.

When in doubt of how to refer to someone directly…just ask!

Tips for Maintaining a Respectful Culture

If you provide care for military members or work within the military community, here are some helpful tips to maintain an inclusive culture.

  • Stay relaxed and make eye contact. Talk to transgender clients just like you talk to everyone else. All people, regardless of their gender identity or expression, appreciate friendly and courteous service.
  • Avoid asking unnecessary questions. Before asking a personal question, consider if your question is based on necessity or curiosity. Instead, think: What do I know? What do I need to know? How can I ask for the information I need in a sensible way?
  • Do not use a client’s dead name. Dead name refers to the birth name of a trans or non-binary person before assuming their current gender identity. Deadnaming (using the birth name), even when unintentional, can be offensive and perceived as minimizing the individual or not accepting the current person they are.
  • Use the client’s indicated name and pronouns even when they are not present. This will maintain respect and help other staff members learn the client’s preferences.
  • Create an environment of responsibility. Don’t be afraid to politely correct your colleagues if they use the wrong names and pronouns or make insensitive comments.
  • Apologize for making mistakes: If you make a mistake, you can say something like, “I apologize for using the wrong pronoun/noun. I didn’t mean to disrespect you.”
  • Refer to another resource if you do not feel capable or have the necessary knowledge. When we know that we do not have the skills to provide the service the transgender or gender non-conforming person is looking for, it is important to recognize it and responsibly refer them to another colleague.

[1] https://www.palmcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/14700-Transgender-Troops-.pdf

Dr. Ángel-Luis Mercado-Santiago, NCC, LPC, EOLD, has been working as a military family counselor in Puerto Rico for 11 years. Dr. Mercado-Santiago is a Clinical Mental Health Counselor licensed in Puerto Rico and North Carolina. He has a Ph.D. in psychology with a major in gender diversity and a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology with a specialty in couples and family therapy. He has also been a part-time university professor at Ana G. Méndez University for 18 years.