An estimated 15,000 trans people currently serve in the military.
In June 2016, the U.S. secretary of defense made a long-overdue announcement: The military was ending its ban on transgender service members.
With the 2011 end to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from serving, allowing trans people to serve openly seemed like the logical next step.
As then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter explained, “Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.”
Fast-forward a year, and President Trump has undone that progress, tweeting that “the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.”
He cited “tremendous medical costs” as the reason behind his decision despite the fact that a RAND Corporation study found that the total additional cost of allowing trans people to serve in the military is $2.4 million-8.4 million. (For comparison, in 2014, the military spent more than 10 times that on erectile dysfunction medication alone.)
But maybe Trump’s decision wasn’t about cost at all. According to Axios reporter Jonathan Swan, a Trump administration official was quoted as saying the move “forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue.”
“How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plan of their campaigns?” Swan quoted the official as saying.
In other words, Trump’s decision doesn’t seem to be about readiness, cost, or any of the other reasons frequently tossed around by opponents of trans inclusion in the military. Instead, it’s just a game of politics, with trans lives as pawns.
There are currently an estimated 15,000 trans people serving in the military. What do they think of Trump reinstating the ban? We asked them.
Amanda Clark was discharged back in 2007 after coming out as trans. While she says she’s ambivalent about military service, she sees this as a matter of basic civil rights.
“I can’t possibly fathom what openly out trans people in the military are feeling right now. Hell, I feel scared now just being a trans person in the civilian world. It feels like the f*cking fascists who run this country are coming for us, and openly serving trans people are next. I’m sure a lot of officers/[non-commissioned officers] are going to be thrilled to get involved in paperwork hell discharging folks.”
Kristen Carella, who served on active duty 2001-2005 as an intelligence analyst stationed in Germany, pointed out that many U.S. allies (18 in total, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom) allow trans people to serve without issue.
“Here was an opportunity for this country to move forward, recognizing the sacrifices transgender people have ALWAYS made in the armed forces, by allowing us to serve openly. [According to Human Rights Campaign] stats 26% of the trans community serves in the military at some point during their lives, that is TWICE the rate of the general population.
Trump’s decision is a stunning reversal that can be taken only as a slap in the face, personally to every transgender person who has ever served. It accomplishes nothing more than making sure transgender people remain a demonized and hated target that right-wing politicians can target to scare their base and push their agendas. Of course, all of this demonization ensures that the ignorant violence which leads bigots to murder transgender people in the streets (particularly trans women of color) will continue.”
Penelope R., an intersex trans woman who served in the Air Force for six years before leaving to pursue transition, says “members are going to die” because of this new policy, and she urges those who might not generally support the military to care about this.
“[The] American military, despite its many infelicities, has always been a reliable space for many kinds of marginalized people to hide out in. This is why trans people are disproportionately represented in the military.
Enlisting was always a last resort for me — I’ve known I was trans since I was a child, and knew going into the military meant carving away parts of my identity I cherished, but at the time the alternative was death. Just death. I chose to live, and as a result I met my wife, found a chosen family that makes the sun rise for me, made enough money to afford transition, and qualified me to receive transitional health care from the Illinois VA. … The military helped make my life worth living. And now it’s all gone to shit for everyone.
Despite what he says, there’s nothing Trump can say or do to stop trans people from serving — he can only get rid of those he knows about. It will only go back to how it was before, with trans service members confined to the closet at the risk of their careers.”
Landon Wilson, who served in the Navy and was the topic of a widely read 2014 Washington Post profile about trans people in the military, points out that the ban means “honorably serving people” will be removed from service, “effectively weakening our country.”
“It’s a heartbreaking shame that the President of the United States is choosing to ignore the sacrifices of transgender service members, particularly at a time where so many have proven their dedication to this country. A diverse military makes a strong military; by removing honorably serving people from service, the President is effectively weakening our country, both as a fighting force and as a leader in civil rights.”
Vivian Wise, an information systems technician on active duty in the Navy, came out to her shipmates the day President Obama and Secretary Carter lifted the ban in 2016. She disagrees with President Trump’s assertion that trans people serving in the military is a “disruption.”
“To say that my service has been a ‘disruption’ is an outright lie. My Commanding Officer, immediate superiors and co-workers have all been fully supportive of me. I am one of the senior technicians within my division, responsible for training our new sailors and managing our day-to-day and week-to-week work list. I was, until just now, being groomed to lead one of our division’s two watch teams for our upcoming deployment, beginning late next year. In that capacity, I serve a critical role in my work center.
Summarily discharging me from military service, for nothing more than petty bigotry and electoral politics, is the disruption. The GOP as a whole, and the Trump administration in particular, are degrading my unit and hundreds if not thousands of other units across the armed services by taking away valuable people. We, and the American people, deserve better than this.”
Cisgender allies, activists, and experts are voicing their concerns, as well.
In an email, TransMilitary co-director and executive producer Fiona Dawson (who, in 2015, documented the story of two trans service members who fell in love) weighed in on the move, saying she hopes Trump will actually take the time to meet some of the trans personnel he deems unfit for service.
“Donald Trump’s assertions against transgender service members are baseless. Science and ethics determine there is no rational reason why the thousands of transgender women and men who have been defending our country and fighting for our freedom for hundreds of years should not be permitted to continue doing so.”
Former Secretary Carter offered his opinion on the reinstatement of the discriminatory policy as well, saying that it “has no place in our military.”
Advocacy organizations and civil rights groups across the country are issuing press releases, denouncing the tweet on a number of grounds.
The Palm Center called this “a worse version of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell'” and hit Trump over his claims of “tremendous costs.”
“As we know from the sad history of that discredited policy, discrimination harms military readiness. This is a shocking and ignorant attack on our military and on transgender troops who have been serving honorably and effectively for the past year. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen stated yesterday, their service must be respected. The Rand Corporation has estimated that the cost of medical care for transgender troops is approximately one one-hundredth of one percent of the military annual health care budget, or at most, $8.4 million per year. To claim otherwise is to lie about the data.”
Tyler Deaton of the American Unity Fund, a conservative LGBTQ organization, criticized Trump for going back on what he saw as LGBTQ-friendly campaign promises in a statement that is long but worth reading in its entirety:
“President Trump promised to protect the transgender community. As President, he said he was ‘respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights’ and would ‘protect the community from violence and oppression.’ But President Trump has broken his promise and, coupled with his administration’s efforts to roll back protections for transgender students in our nation’s public schools, he is developing an undeniable pattern of anti-gay and anti-transgender policy while in office. … As conservatives and advocates for LGBTQ freedom, AUF calls on President Trump to reconsider his comments, and stand with all of our soldiers, including those who are transgender.”
Former Justice Department official Vanita Gupta, currently president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, slammed Trump’s move as “yet another broken promise to the American people.”
“President Trump doesn’t understand that our military is stronger when there are no discriminatory barriers to service. The civil and human rights community will continue to loudly and proudly stand up for the rights of all who are willing to protect the security of our country, including the thousands of transgender people currently serving in our military.”
And of course, there was pushback from a number of Democratic and Republican politicians alike.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) commented on the sad irony of Trump’s decision to increase discrimination on the 69th anniversary of President Truman’s order to desegregate the military.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) announced plans to introduce legislation that would overrule Trump’s decision.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-New York) highlighted the number of trans people serving in the military.
Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who has a transgender son, spoke out against it as well.
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts) offered to stand in solidarity with trans soldiers.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said “transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.”
And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) called trans service members “patriots.”
Trans people exist in the world and have every right to engage in the same activities and occupations as anybody else.
This is a big deal, and it’s not just a distraction. Nobody should be discriminated against for who they are — not in the military, not in education, not in housing, not in employment, not in health care, not at all.