Donald Trump recently tweeted that transgender people will be banned from serving in the US military. The controversial change in policy is a shameless attempt to distract from the healthcare debate and the Russia investigation, appeal to the president's socially conservative base, and secure funds for Trump's border wall with Mexico. But an assault on the rights of a minority group of Americans - who are willing and able to serve their country - can't be ignored.
Trump tweeted that after speaking to his generals and military experts, he had decided to bar transgender individuals from military service "in any capacity", a reversal of the Obama administration's policy. He pointed to their "tremendous medical costs" and potential "disruption" of the military. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders added transgender troops' impact on "military readiness" and "unit cohesion" to the list of excuses.
The ban has been lambasted by both Democrats and Republicans. It "manages to offend on both moral and practical grounds", wrote ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. He added that it shrinks the military's recruitment pool, and pointed to countries such as Israel that have deployed transgender soldiers without issue. The ban "denies [transgender individuals] their dignity, their equality", argued New Yorker editor David Remnick, framing the decision in the context of Trump's disrespect for the military: he has boasted about being "smarter" than US generals, mocked Republican Senator John McCain's capture during the Vietnam War, and criticised Khizr Khan and his wife, whose son died while deployed in Iraq.
Similarly, Ashton Carter - Obama's defence secretary - said that selecting troops "on other grounds than military qualifications...has no place in our military”. Senator McCain commented: "There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train and deploy to leave the military - regardless of their gender identity”. And even Daily Mail columnist Piers Morgan has come out against the ban, labelling it "reprehensible" and "bigoted".
Evidence suggests the transgender ban is unwarranted, and could even backfire. A recent study by RAND, a think tank, found transgender troops have no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness or readiness. It also estimated there are around 1,300 to 6,600 transgender service members, and anticipated only 29 to 129 of those will seek transgender surgery or related hormone therapy each year. Therefore, transgender troops make up less than 1 per cent of the US military, and incur about $8 million a year in related medical costs - 0.001% of the US military budget. For comparison, the Department of Defence spent more than ten times that amount - $84 million - on Viagra and erectile dysfunction drugs in 2014.
The ban clearly isn't an exercise in cost-cutting. Rather, Trump hopes it will clear the way for $790 billion in defence and security spending to be approved by Congress this week - some Republicans were holding out in hope of pressuring the Pentagon to stop spending taxpayer money on transgender treatments. The spending package includes $1.6 billion in funding for Trump's border wall, one of his top priorities. However, Republicans were hoping he would ban transgender troops from receiving hormones or surgery; Trump went much further. “This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the [White House] set the whole table on fire,” a senior House Republican aide told Politico.
Trump also knows the policy will be popular among his base, and knows that defending it in red states could be challenging for Democrats in future elections. But as usual, it was rushed and showed little sign of thought or preparation. The administration is unable to say how the ban will be enforced or whether active transgender troops will be booted out.
If this was an issue of cost, Trump could have barred the Pentagon from paying for transgender surgery or related hormone therapy. Instead, he barred transgender people from serving, giving the excuses of “military readiness” or “unit cohesion” with no evidence to back them up. This represents an attack on a minority group who have made significant sacrifices and risked their lives to serve their country; now they’re being told their identities bar them from service.
Trump announced the ban on the 69th anniversary of Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the military. uniformed service was a chance to earn legitimacy as civilians and the right to vote, work and raise families. It also makes the point that future recruits may be turned off by an employer that discriminates against a vulnerable group. Moreover, commanders viewed transgender personnel as beneficial as they contribute to greater diversity and inclusion. The move could prompt more transgender troops to remain in the closet to avoid being booted out, to the detriment of their personal health and their unit, and could incite violence against transgenders in the military, if Trump’s attacks on Muslims and immigrants are any indication.
The original ban was based on incorrect and outdated medical rationale. The concern was that a person’s gender dysphoria — a state of emotional distress caused by how someone’s body or the gender they were assigned at birth conflicts with their gender identity — may interfere with someone’s ability to serve, since it can lead to severe depression and anxiety. And treating those conditions, the argument went, would cost too much money and disrupt the military’s operations. One argument is that making hormone injections available to military personnel could open the Defense Department to claims from other people not allowed to serve, like Type 1 diabetics, who also need regular injections.
As we covered earlier this year, the Trump administration reversed Obama-era protections for transgender children in public schools, which requested teachers respect and protect trans students' rights and allow them to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender identity. At the time, we argued Americans' ignore assaults on minority rights at their peril; that advice is more vital than ever.