Why It Matters That LGBT People Can Now Serve Openly in the Military

President Obama deserves praise for ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the combat exclusion rule for women, and the transgender service ban.

Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

When all is said and done—and as of now, it nearly is—people will wonder what all the fretting was about. In fact, the forgetting has already begun, as talking heads asked their guests or correspondents why it took the Pentagon so long to lift its ban on transgender service, and why the ban existed in the first place. Either no one could answer (there appear to be no serious advocates or experts who can make a cogent argument against allowing trans people to serve in uniform), or we heard mutterings about disruptions to unit cohesion or military readiness or the difficulties of serving in the austere environment of warfare—the same shibboleths that have, for centuries, cast LGBT people as unstable, unfit, unable to take their place as truly first-class citizens like their straight and cis peers.

Of course, there are GOP politicians who continue to exploit hatred of queer people to score political points. They include Sen. John McCain, who bitterly opposed lifting “don’t ask, don’t tell,” insisting that openly gay service would do “great damage” to the military and “harm [its] battle effectiveness.” Boy, was he wrong. Yet he is now threatening to hold hearings on transgender service, to push legislation on the issue, and to demand further information about the financial cost of implementation.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, who opposed service by gays and lesbians because it would “overly complicate things” and somehow make it “difficult for us to take care of the troops,” is also seeking hearings on trans service, hoping to put repeal on hold because he views it as an effort to force a “social agenda” on the military. And in the House, Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry has taken the lead on opposing the repeal, calling it “the latest example of the Pentagon and the president prioritizing politics over policy.” He raised doubts about whether transgender military members could meet the “individual readiness requirements” of uniformed service, even though an estimated 15,500 already do so every day. (Such disdain for the service of thousands of America’s troops would be unimaginable coming from Republicans in any other context.) Thornberry stated that he and his allies would “continue to push for actual answers to the readiness questions we’ve been asking for nearly a year to which we have still not received a response.” Some military service chiefs joined in the resistance, indicating that they needed more time to answer thorny questions about how to make trans service work.

The trouble for all these doomsayers is that their battery of so-called complicated questions have already been asked and answered, making any hearings they would hold into a transparent charade. Indeed, as the Palm Center’s Aaron Belkin has shown, the strategy of exaggerating complexity to make simple policy changes seem herculean is a time-tested stalling method. “It’s increasingly obvious,” he writes, “that ostensible concerns are, in fact, a delay tactic masquerading as complexity. … [A]ll genuine questions—as opposed to stalling tactics—about implementing inclusive policy have now been addressed by a wide variety of expert sources.”

Take financial costs, for instance. Two well-designed studies (see here and here) have already derived solid estimates of the cost of transgender service (which should be irrelevant anyway—as it can only be considered an “added” cost if you already believe that trans people are not entitled to serve and receive necessary health care just like anyone else who serves). According to one of the studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the $5.6 million annual cost is “one one-hundredth of one percent of the military’s $47.8 billion annual health care budget.” The Palm Center has released a string of studies co-authored by retired military officers and other medical, legal, and scientific experts. Their reports, which included extensive guidance on implementing a trans-inclusive policy, found that “there is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service” and that “formulating and implementing inclusive [transgender] policy is administratively feasible and neither excessively complex nor burdensome.” SPARTA, an advocacy organization serving LGBT troops and veterans, has released a 147-page implementation guide that covers virtually every possible scenario on which commanders might need guidance.

The Pentagon itself spent the last year extensively studying the issue of transgender service, including commissioning the RAND Corp. to conduct thorough independent inquiries into the topic. RAND was originally created by senior military officers and has long enjoyed a tight-knit relationship with the armed forces. Its study, according to the New York Times, concluded that “repealing the Pentagon’s discriminatory transgender ban would have minimal impact on the force,” was “unlikely to harm unit cohesion,” and “the cost of providing transition-related care would be negligible.”

Extensive study also preceded the end of the military’s gay ban—by over half a century. Indeed, since the 1950s, research by the military itself had repeatedly concluded that gay service members were not, in fact, a threat to the force. But for decades, this research was ignored by military officials and political and cultural leaders intent on demonizing gay people and ensuring that they not occupy positions in society that would show the narrative of “unsuitability” to be pure myth. As I argued in my first book, Unfriendly Fire, based on direct interviews with participants, the lack of empirical evidence tying gay service to problems in the military spurred military officials and advocates to simply make up a fake rationale, known as the “unit cohesion” argument, which asserted—with no factual basis—that homosexuality was incompatible with military service because it threatened the cohesion and effectiveness of the force.

That’s why this moment is so historic. The facts won, while the fears lost. Under President Barack Obama, the Pentagon took on two thorough, good-faith efforts to learn all it could about the implications of allowing, first, openly gay service, and next, trans service. Studying the lessons of numerous foreign militaries with open service, U.S. domestic government institutions, and the experiences and scholarship of LGBT service members and researchers, the appointed working groups found that resistance to inclusive service was rooted in fear of the unknown, whereas the facts showed a clear path to equality—one that ultimately would strengthen rather than weaken the military.

Indeed, despite decades of dire warnings by conservatives that inclusive service would severely harm the military and even endanger lives—many of which I’ve collected in this report—research and experience since DADT’s repeal show there simply is no conflict between equality and military strength. A study I co-authored with other scholars, including military professors from all four U.S. military service academies, found that ending lesbian, gay, and bisexual military discrimination actually improved the armed forces. It removed barriers to recruiting and retaining the best talent, reduced distrust by ending the forced dishonesty and suspicion imposed by DADT, and improved the leadership climate since commanders no longer had to choose between following bad policy and keeping their best troops. It also helped cast the military as a welcoming place, something critical to a generation of young potential recruits turned off by discrimination.

The same is sure to be true after repealing the trans ban. The military will improve as it comes further in line with its own core values of merit, honesty, and integrity. Indeed, inclusivity affects not just LGBT people but all the service members who were previously being lied to and alienated from peers because they were not allowed to know who they really were. It sends a powerful message—both inside and outside the military—to all kinds of straight and cis Americans who may feel that they don’t belong: that maybe, in fact, they do. It reaffirms the simple principles of equal treatment and of empathy for those who seem different. And it reminds our country that facts go further than fears.

For gay and trans people, this moment marks a further blow to the myth of LGBT subversion, unfitness, and inability to contribute as full citizens. While some on the right—and even some in the LGBT community itself—will continue to oppose military service by LGBT Americans, the power of the image of gay and trans folks wearing their nation’s uniform in a visible commitment to protecting their fellow citizens with the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice is indisputable. It makes equal treatment the only standard and the only policy that’s acceptable, morally politically, or otherwise.

With the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the removal of the combat exclusion rule for women, and the demise of the transgender ban, our armed forces can be considered truly inclusive—by formal policy—for the first time in their 241 years of serving this nation. That is an achievement worth pausing over, and President Obama deserves enormous credit for successfully reaching all three of those major goals under his watch. More to the point, it’s an achievement of which all Americans can truly be proud.