On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced, via Twitter, a ban on transgender people serving in the United States military.
His tweeted justification was that “our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military [sic] would entail.”
It was, several Twitter users noted, an odd way to mark the 69th anniversary of President Harry Truman signing an executive order that ended racial discrimination in the military. There are currently thousands of transgender people serving in the nation’s all-volunteer military.
As BuzzFeed News noted, a policy instated last year ensures transgender people the right to serve in the military, and have the medical costs of their transition covered. Trump’s tweet alone can’t undo that, and the Pentagon does not appear to have any new policies in the works that would. In fact, military officials weren’t given notice of the new ban before Trump tweeted about it:
At the Pentagon, the first of the three tweets raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action. Many said they were left in suspense for nine minutes, the time between the first and second tweet. Only after the second tweet did military officials receive the news the president was announcing a personnel change on Twitter.
Trump’s tweets appeared to come out of nowhere, though hints of attempts to unravel Obama-era protections for transgender service members have been seen in recent weeks.
The policy enacted last year included efforts to recruit more transgender military members, which Trump’s Department of Defense has been delaying, BuzzFeed News reported last month. Foreign Policy published a story on Tuesday reporting that Vice President Mike Pence has been pushing Republican members of Congress to tack amendments onto a Pentagon spending bill that would rescind financial coverage of transition procedures for transgender military members. Similar legislation failed to pass earlier this month.
Pence, for what it’s worth, has long hated diversity in the military. CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski dug up a 1990s op-ed by Pence that amounts to a screed against the Disney movie “Mulan,” which he believed was pushing the liberal agenda of including women in the military.
According to Politico, Trump’s tweets on Wednesday were part of negotiations to secure funding for his much-discussed border wall with Mexico, a key campaign promise. Though Trump repeatedly vowed to strong-arm Mexico into paying for it, it appears it will be paid for with the rights of transgender patriots, instead.
Trump’s tweets apparently took even the Republicans he was trying to please by surprise, however. They only wanted to prohibit Pentagon funds from being used for gender reassignment surgery and medication, not wholesale ban transgender people from service. As Politico reported:
“This is like someone told the White House to light a candle on the table and the WH set the whole table on fire,” said one senior House Republican aide. The source said that while GOP leaders asked the White House for help, they weren’t expecting — and got no heads up on — Trump’s far-reaching directive.
Jonathan Swan at Axios tweeted that it was a strategic move to influence midterm elections.
As STATnews and The Atlantic noted, estimated costs of covering transition services for transgender service members are minimal — “little more than a rounding error in the military’s $47.8 billion annual health care budget,” according to the author of a New England Journal of Medicine study in 2015.
The New England study found that there are 12,800 transgender services members eligible for medical care, and fewer than 200 would require transition care. A June 2016 RAND study, commissioned by the Department of Defense, found between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender active-duty service members, out of 1.3 million total. The New England study found an overall estimated cost of $4.2 million to $5.6 million, while the RAND study found providing care to transgender service members would increase military healthcare expense by between $2.4 million and $8.4 million each year — an uptick of between 0.04 and 0.13 percent.
As far as Trump’s claims that transgender service members create “disruption,” RAND found that fewer than 0.1 percent of military members would seek treatments that could delay deployment.
For comparison, James Hamblin at The Atlantic noted military bands cost $437 million of the DoD’s estimated total $640 billion budget, and that the increase to care for transgender soldiers amounts to one tenth of the annual $84 million that the military spends on medication for erectile dysfunction. (It’s easy to mock treatment for erectile dysfunction, but important to keep in mind that it’s a common side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder.)
As Hamblin wrote:
The diseases that do seem to disproportionately afflict transgender people are mental-health issues. The pathology behind this is abetted by societal marginalization of exactly the sort that Trump’s language propagated today—portraying transgender people as a burden to The Mission, with a focus on “medical costs” as an apparent euphemism for gender-reassignment surgeries.
For now, the military is taking no action without further instruction from the president.
Some on Twitter noted that the response from both former military officials and Republicans is an indication of how far the struggle for transgender rights has come in the past few years alone. Orrin Hatch, the 83-year-old longest-serving U.S. Senator, was one of the first to speak out against the ban.
The American Civil Liberties Union is already moving to block any potential ban stemming from the President’s tweets.
Here is a reading list on transgender people serving in the United States Armed Forces.
1. “The Military Is An Imperialist Tool, But The Ban on Trans Folks is Dehumanizing As Fuck” (L’Lerrét Jazelle Ailith, Wear Your Voice, July 2017)
One of the only pieces by a trans writer published in the wake of Trump’s tweets, Ailith’s post at Wear Your Voice also talks more broadly about the plight of transgender Americans under Trump.
Much like the debate on which bathroom trans people should be able to use, this issue of trans involvement in the military is less about the actual military itself and more about denying us our right to occupy space, make decisions, navigate authentically, and live within our full dignity as human beings.
But the President’s tweets from this morning are also a distraction. They are a distraction from the multiplicity of ways that the system has failed to protect trans people. Especially Black and Brown trans folks.
2. ‘”Did I just get fired… via tweet?” Transgender troops in Colorado react to Trump announcement” (Jennifer Brown, The Denver Post, July 2017)
Brown followed up with transgender troops featured in her 2015 Denver Post story on trans people in the military before they could serve openly.
“Did I just get fired … via tweet?” Staff Sgt. Patricia King asked on her Facebook page Wednesday shortly after President Donald Trump used Twitter to announce that transgender people can no longer serve in the military.
“This is a concerning turn of events,” said King, who lived for 16 years as a male soldier before transitioning to female while stationed at Fort Carson south of Colorado Springs in 2015. “Please keep trans service members in your prayers and call your representatives.”
At the time of Brown’s story, King was one of an estimated 15,500 transgender service members living dual lives.
For now, Trish must play the role of male soldier while on duty. It is only after work, at her home in Colorado Springs, that she lives “genuinely.”
Splitting her life in two is a torment.
4. “What It Feels Like Being a Trans Person Serving In The Armed Forces” (Jess Ruliffson, BuzzFeed Reader, October 2016)
Ruliffson illustrates her interview with former Senior Airman Jordan Blisk, an Air Force Reserves member who joined the military as a young girl because her family couldn’t afford college. “When I started getting called ‘sir,’ I was scared by how right it felt,” Blisk told her.
This short film shares the story of a transgender military couple who at the time could not serve openly as their true selves. The producer, Fiona Dawson, also created “TransMilitary,” a platform for transgender service members.
6. “Transgender airman: ‘I would like to see them try to kick me out of my military'” (Stephen Losey, Air Force Times, July 2017)
After Trump’s tweets, one of the transgender service men in the Times Op-Doc told Air Force Times, “You are not going to deny me my right to serve my country when I am fully qualified and able and willing to give my life.” He was one of several people interviewed by the publication.
A Marine military police officer who is a transgender man (he asked that his name not be used), pointed out that he’s served honorably through two deployments. He’s never endangered his comrades, he said, or made anyone else “conform to my world view.” All he asked for, he said, was the same respect he gave others.
“I have never described myself as trans; I’m a mother—-ing Marine,” the corporal said. “That‘s all that matters. Don’t tarnish my title with your bigotry and fear of the unknown.”
7. “Trump’s Pick to Lead the Army Believes Being Transgender is a Disease” (Amanda Terkel, Huffington Post, April 2017)
When Trump announced he wanted to nominate Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green as Army secretary, Terkel highlight Green’s recent comments to the Chattanooga Tea Party.
Green replied that many service members are younger and are more than fine serving alongside openly gay men and women, which have been allowed in the military since President Barack Obama signed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010. He said that although most millennials are comfortable with people who are transgender, it is a “disease.”
8. “Trans Soldier Shane Ortega on Trump’s Military Ban, How to Save America” (Raven Brajdic, Rolling Stone, July 2017)
Shane Ortega, the first openly transgender soldier in the U.S. Army, tells Rolling Stone his thoughts on Trump’s tweets.
This is so much more than people needing jobs, or serving, or war. This is about who is considered a valid human being, and who is not a valid human being. And who gets to decide. Right now, we’re seeing that Donald Trump gets to decide.
I knew what gender I was before I joined. These new recruits will know what gender they are before they join. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. These people still chose to take bullets for you.
9. “Transgender in the military: A Pentagon in transition weighs its policy” (Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, April 2015)
Ortega was first profiled in 2015, before the Obama administration allowed transgender people to serve openly in the military.
He holds a man’s military travel passport, based on the new Social Security card he received when he changed his name. But he is still identified as female in the military’s official computer system. He must wear a woman’s “dress blues” for official occasions.
Looking for clarity, his commanders have formally asked the Army a simple question: Can Ortega serve openly as a man?
“Administratively I shouldn’t exist,” said Ortega, 28. “But I do exist, so that’s still the problem.”
A SEAL on the unit that took out Osama bin Laden earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, among about 50 other ribbons and medals. Friedman’s piece is so eminently readable and compelling, it’s hard to pull just one quote.
It’s a weird thing to say, but talking about transgender people has become a trend. Which is a good thing. “Visibility is good,” as Kristin says. But trends are also reductive and facile and sometimes dehumanizing while letting everyone off the hook. It’s like using the hashtag Black Lives Matter and thinking—well, we took care of racial injustice, let’s go have brunch. A trend usually fails to make a connection between people like Kristin Beck and the rest of us. Kristin Beck’s story isn’t just about the relatively small number of people who are born with the traits of a gender they don’t identify with. Aren’t most of us hiding some part of ourselves? Would we not, most of us, be terrified at having to walk out into the world with that part of ourselves on the outside? Are we not, often, made up of impulses and identities that seem like they can’t exist together? What Kristin Beck is asking is: What happens if you feel like a Navy SEAL and a woman in a red dress accepting a bouquet of flowers from an admirer at an airport? Are any of us really just one thing? Aren’t we all made up of a bunch of conflicting identities (masculine and feminine, liar and self-righteous, etc.) that we’ll never be able to make fit together? And how do we bear life, knowing we are so many things that can never be reconciled?