There Are No Excuses for Not Accepting Transgender Troops
Examples from 20 countries show Trump's ban is not about money or military readiness
For a brief moment, the U.S. military allowed transgender troops to serve openly until Pres. Donald Trump ended the policy citing “tremendous medical costs and disruption.” During that time, America’s armed forces had joined a practice existent in at least 20 countries, including Israel and the bulk of the NATO alliance.
He should’ve read up on their experiences. In none of those countries has integrating transgender troops showed a “significant effect on cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness,” a 2016 report from the Rand Corporation, a research organization closely linked to the U.S. Air Force, noted.
Let’s get one thing out of the way — despite Trump’s statement that the ban is about saving money or force readiness, it isn’t, especially when considering the U.S. military’s size and annual spending.
The Obama administration ended Pentagon regulations barring transgender persons in June 2016, and directed the U.S. military to study extending health benefits to transition care to America’s 11,000 to 15,000 transgender troops, not all of whom would seek medical transition. In the Rand study, the think-tank estimated an annual increase in health care costs of $8.4 million — at the upper end — if the Pentagon extended those benefits.
Military Times previously pointed out that this is a tenth of the cost the military health system spends on dick-erection pills. It’s roughly the same as the cost of an Air Force blimp that crashed in a storm in Arizona. Over 50 years, if the costs stayed the same, they would amount to 0.028 percent of the F-35 stealth fighter program, and around 0.13-percent rise in military health spending.
Keep in mind that allowing transgender troops to serve openly is not like ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — the 1994-2011 U.S. military policy which forbid gay and lesbian service members from disclosing their sexuality. In Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada and other countries which have opened the ranks to trans troops, the unique circumstances transgender recruits face means the comparison to gay and lesbians is inadequate.
The Israel Defense Forces, for instance, relies heavily on conscript soldiers who live at home during their service. This blurring of civilian and military roles — a consequence of Israeli history — means Israeli policy is often ad-hoc and individualized. Israel only formalized its transgender policy in 2013 and often discharged members before that for mental health reasons.
An Israeli captain, known as Shachar — pictured above in a handout from the Israeli Consulate General — was the first openly transgender soldier in the IDF.
Israel doesn’t allow transition surgery until the age of 21, an age in which most recruits who joined at 18 are no longer serving or are preparing to leave. Combat-units are off-limits during the transition period, but are generally open to those who complete their transition. The IDF will also pay for transition care, although this isn’t particularly noteworthy, as Israel has universal health care which provides for it, too.
Above — a U.S. Air Force service member wears pride socks during a run at Joint Base Andrews in June 2017. U.S. Air Force photo. At top — IDF Capt. Shachar. Israeli Consulate General of New York photo
If you want to be an infantry unit and you’ve completed the physical standards of your true gender, then you’re in.
A closer approximation to the United States is the United Kingdom, which opened the ranks to transgender recruits 17 years ago. The military “encourages those who have not yet started their gender transition to complete their transition before joining,” RAND noted, which echoes the Obama administration’s 2016 regulations.
However, the British military will cover the costs of hormone replacement therapy — falling short of reassignment surgery — and works with soldiers to tailor a timeline fitting their needs and the military’s schedule. Although there are circumstances in which the military may discharge a service member if the medical recovery period is too long.
What’s driving Trump decision is, plainly, politics. Conservative Republicans in the House objected to increased funding to pay for several dozen miles of border wall and a boost to military spending, according to Politico. In exchange for keeping his agenda funding, Trump reimposed the ban.
“[P]lease be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump wrote.
A second motive is clearly directed toward the midterm elections in 2018, with the White House deploying anti-transgender prejudice as a wedge issue, echoing a rash of state referendums banning same-sex marriage in 2004 coinciding with George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. At the time, marriage equality was still absent from the Democratic Party platform and John Kerry, the party’s nominee, opposed it.
It’s a political strategy of forcing your opponents to support or defend an issue — and potentially lose supporters from either direction. That appears to be a motive judging by a White House official who told Axios’ Jonathan Swan that “this forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of the issue.”
Just spoke to a Trump administration official about the transgender military decision. Here's what they said… pic.twitter.com/eOWdvlxTfd
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) July 26, 2017
This is what Trump’s “America First” philosophy means, in practice — U.S. military policy guided by domestic politics and whether decisions help Trump, and Republicans, win elections. But whether the ban will help Trump, or whether same-sex marriage bans indeed rallied voters to the polls in 2004, is unclear.
However, in the long-term, the 2004 bans galvanized opposition and forced LGBT activists to retool their strategy, culminating in a massive defeat for marriage equality opponents in 2015, although transgender people continue to face greater legal issues and prejudices in the United States.
It’s unclear if the transgender service members currently out — numbering in the several thousand — will now be expelled from the military. The U.S. military can’t change the policy without direction from the White House, which hasn’t given it. It’s worth noting that public opposition to transgender rights is less than opposition to marriage equality 13 years ago, setting a vindictive Trump administration up for a potential backlash.