The week of September 28, 2014

How Tor protects and serves transgender service members

By Patrick Howell O'Neill

When they’re not looking out for the enemy, they’re looking over their shoulders.

One transgender woman, serving in the U.S. Army during the war in Afghanistan, told Griffin Boyce that other soldiers cut holes in her uniform over and over again. Others soldiers claimed they were forced to bury dead bodies and take on other punitive duties after their gender identity had been outed.

Multiple “women [serving in Afghanistan] have told me that they were suddenly put at the head of their supply convoys every week until the end of their tour, with the idea that if there were an [explosive device], they’d be in the position that would be struck by it,” Boyce recalled. “Putting someone in a position where they are at a very high risk of death, on purpose, is unconscionable. The message behind having someone [always] lead convoy is, ‘I think you shouldn’t exist and want you to die.’”

For transgender soldiers, the digital anonymity that Tor provides is a potential lifesaver.

Boyce is a 29-year-old prospective clinical psychology Ph.D. student. He’s also a hacker and researcher who works as a developer for Tor, the powerful anonymizing service home to 2 million users at any given moment. As a transgender male, he’s uniquely qualified to communicate with and assist men and women struggling in the armed forces.

Over the course of three years, Boyce estimates that he’s spoken with over 200 service members and trained many of them to use Tor, which provides critical layers of protection that make it extremely difficult to find out a user’s location, history, or identity.

Groups like domestic abuse victims and political activists around the world depend on Tor—among other important tools—to allow them the digital protection and, in the case of the transgender soldiers, to freely access information and advice that can be crucial to their livelihood.

For transgender soldiers, the digital anonymity that Tor provides is a potential lifesaver.

“I heard about the fear,” said Boyce, who now lives in Washington, D.C. “Trans guys in particular tend to keep it an extreme secret. If you’re in [the theater of war], you’re in a really good position to be taken advantage of, either through coercion or physical force. What would you do if you knew that you might be in a firefight without backup?”

The fear that Boyce described is both pervasive and justified, as multiple studies have confirmed.

Despite the 2010 repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the Department of Defense explicitly bans transgender service members, describing them as sexual deviants and paraphilic, meaning extremely abnormal or dangerous. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in May that the military should “continually” review its ban on transgender service members, but no action has been taken to date.

The prohibition hasn’t stopped members of the trans community from enlisting—one recent study from the Palm Center estimates there are 15,450 transgender personnel currently serving in the U.S. military and 135,000 transgender veterans—it just means they’re forced into hiding.

If discovered, the reactions vary widely. Some are protected by sympathetic colleagues who stay silent and may even offer them help. Many others are rejected, ostracized, thrown out of the military, or punished in the ways described above and worse.

Rudderless abroad and fearing for their safety, many transgender soldiers followed a whispered word of mouth to Boyce.

Last year, for example, a Navy cryptologist named Landon Wilson was put up for promotion while serving in Afghanistan. The recognition of ultimately backfired: As the paperwork was prepared, colleagues found out that Landon was born a girl and was thus was a transgender man. He was fired despite his prowess and the resources the military had poured into training him.

“Transgender service members and veterans have reported wide-ranging experiences of discrimination, harassment, and physical and sexual assault while serving in the military,” a 2013 report from the UCLA School of Law explained. Over half of the transgender soldiers surveyed said they’d been harassed, and they were more likely than non-military civilians to have survived physical violence (9 percent) and sexual violence (8 percent) while serving.

The military ban puts transgender soldiers in a dangerous situation: They’re forbidden from receiving official military treatment, and receiving outside medical care without close oversight is illegal. Worse still, even a routine Google search for medical advice like “transgender health” could raise flags and have dire consequences.

The Palm Center report, released in March and co-chaired by former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, concluded that the ban on transgender soldiers was outdated, harmful, and not at all based on modern medical science.

“This has devastating consequences for them, and makes it impossible to access medically necessary health care without risking discharge,” Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and co-chair of the Planning Commission on Transgender Military Service, recently wrote on CNN. “Careers are ruined, and the military wastes resources training competent service members and then firing them when their gender identity is discovered.”

Rudderless abroad and fearing for their safety, many transgender soldiers followed a whispered word of mouth to Boyce. As an activist, he’d earned a reputation for building an online outreach community as a way of offering guidance and safety to those who needed it desperately.

For much of the 2000s, while America’s wars in the Middle East raged, much of the trans community—and various other military Internet communities—were found around Yahoo Groups, inconspicuous message boards that served as first points of contact for the communities that needed them. While such chat rooms were a step removed from the general public, they were still far from secure.

“That made a really easy target for someone who wanted to find out who XYZ person was, or to confirm a suspicion that someone was gay or trans,” Boyce explained. “This is still the case:  If you can match an online handle to an individual’s real identity, you can effectively unmask them.”

In 2007, Boyce started his own chat room “to meet with people anonymously and discuss the issues they faced with they were figuring out their identity.” Nearly everything in the chat was anonymous and ephemeral. Boyce didn’t log visitors’ IP addresses, and no name was required to talk. The chat room quietly became popular with military types.

“When you’re all alone, it can seem like no one really gets it.” –Griffin Boyce

Tor, around that time, was transforming from an obscure and difficult-to-use research tool into a truly practical engine for anonymity. Whereas previously users had to hack their way through a complex, text-only command line and constantly configure and reconfigure their settings to ensure anonymity, Tor had evolved into a point-and-click browser that anyone could use and understand.

To avoid potentially disastrous unmaskings, Boyce taught his community about Tor. Using Tor, individuals often asked Boyce about medical treatment, especially when it comes to hormones. What kind do I take, they often wonder, and how much?

“The typical [hormone] dosage for young trans guys is 100mg per week,” Boyce said. “I’m on 420mg a week because I’m slightly androgen insensitive. If I were using Dr. Google, I’d be on the completely wrong dosage. And if you take too much estrogen, you can have a heart attack or stroke from clotting complications.”

Boyce, communicating with soldiers using Tor on a chat room he built and hosted himself, claims to have guided soldiers to helpful doctors, therapists, and helped them leave the military safely and legally.

“Very few people believed in the war,” Boyce remembered. “Some signed up for college benefits because they couldn’t find a job. Some because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Some thought it would be an adventure, and they tended to be fairly upbeat.”

Many of the conversations were diversions, an attempt to talk about anything but the problems that loomed large ahead. In those cases, Boyce just listened.

Given the anonymity necessarily involved, it’s next to impossible to corroborate Boyce’s accounts, but his anecdotes align closely with all recent research on the subject. Boyce also plans to release the results of a 200-transgender soldier survey in 2015, delving into even more detail about their lives in the military.

Boyce’s own outreach to the military has slowed considerably as he’s taken other big projects in recent months. His online outreach community is gone, and the chat room has been down for the last four years. Even still, his work with Tor is making it easier than ever for individuals to achieve the anonymity they need online—it’s easier to use, far faster, and more capable than ever before—and new people are still finding their way to Boyce for help.

“When you’re all alone, it can seem like no one really gets it,” he said. “So a big part of the project was to give people hope that their lives can get better.”


Photo via the U.S. Army/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price