“Unit Cohesion” Isn’t a Real Reason to Ban Trans People From the Military

Sexual and gender minorities pose no threat to “cohesion.”

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In explaining his tweeted announcement that transgender Americans will not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military “in any capacity,” President Trump cited “the tremendous medical costs and disruption” that he alleged transgender service would entail. “Based on consultation that he’s had with his national security team,” echoed White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the president concluded that transgender service “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.”

The unprecedented nature of such a groundless attack by the Commander in Chief against his own troops is so breathtaking—if implemented, the policy would mean rounding up 12,800 ably serving U.S. troops and dismissing them for reasons unrelated to performance—that it’s difficult to know where to begin dismantling such claims. But the assertions are particularly excruciating to my ear because I spent more than a decade researching and then fighting the very same baseless contentions that were being used to prop up the failed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring open service by lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) troops.

At the time I began researching a book on the history and impact of DADT, I came to the topic with an earnest wish to learn the arguments on both sides of the argument and to weigh how those arguments shaped the policy debate. I quickly learned that my earnestness was misplaced. For literally decades, it turned out, the military itself had been conducting research into the impact of LGB service on readiness. This started with a study by the Navy back in 1957 called the “Crittenden Report,” which found that gay people were no more likely to be a security risk (the rationale for banning their service at the time) than their peers. Since then no less than 20 separate studies, which I’ve chronicled at this research portal, have reached some variation of the same conclusion: There is no evidence that service by sexual minorities harms the military at all.

Yet prejudice dies hard, and the military—and its socially conservative supporters—were not about to let the inconvenient truth get in the way of their bias. They came up with a series of rationales for discrimination, each of which eventually fell: gay people were dubbed a security risk; then criminal; then mentally ill; then a threat to the family; then weak warriors; then a source of discomfort for the fragile egos of straight troops; then a medical risk in the time of AIDS; then tramplers of privacy. Finally, champions of military tradition devised the argument that gay people in uniform were a threat to unit cohesion and military readiness, the very phrase now being spewed by the Trump administration to explain away its governance by tweet.

But in conducting research for my book, members of the group largely responsible for constructing this rationale acknowledged to me that it was fake. Charlie Moskos, a professor of mine at Northwestern University who coined “don’t ask, don’t tell” and proposed it as a compromise to his friend, Sen. Sam Nunn, then the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told me privately that he wasn’t worried about any threat to readiness or cohesion, despite using that rationale in public to sell his policy idea. “Fuck unit cohesion,” he told me, “I don’t care about that.” For Moskos, the reason to ban openly gay service was cultural: He posited a “moral right” of straight people not to be looked at with eyes of desire, a precursor to the current “bathroom” bans for transgender people under the rubric of privacy and whipped-up fears of sexual assault.

DADT was forged after a 500-page RAND study written by 75 credentialed scholars—which found that openly gay service would not harm the military—was summarily ignored and replaced with a 15-page report authored by a panel of generals. The first chair of that panel, the Military Working Group, was Lt. Gen. Robert Alexander, who told me that the men running the panel didn’t even understand what “sexual orientation” meant. He said the MWG “didn’t have any empirical data” so the conclusions they drew were purely “subjective.” It was “very difficult to get an objective, rational review of this policy” he said, because it was an area in which “passion leads, and rationale follows.”

Rear Adm. John Hutson, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy was a Navy representative to the MWG. Hutson told me the policy was “based on nothing. It wasn’t empirical, it wasn’t studied, it was completely visceral, intuitive.” It was rooted in “our own prejudices and our own fears,” he added. Lacking any actual evidence about how to handle the question of openly gay service, they “hung everything on the question of unit cohesion” and allowed a “moral passing of the buck.”

Another representative to the MWG was Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis of the Army, a rabidly anti-LGBTQ evangelical who became a vice president at the Family Research Council, which is specified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Maginnis acknowledged that he cast the question of openly gay service as a “unit cohesion” issue for “political reasons,” explaining that the belief by religious conservatives that homosexuality was “morally repugnant” would be insufficient to sway the national debate.

For anyone still wishing to be guided by facts on the ground, the data points are these: Half-a-century of research conducted by multiple parties, including the military itself, has shown indisputably that military cohesion and readiness are not undermined by LGB military service; the very architects of the “unit cohesion” rationale have repeatedly acknowledged that the argument was nothing but a ruse designed to justify discrimination; and the religious right waged a brutal campaign to spread myths and lies about who queer people are in order to try to enforce a retrograde agenda onto the U.S. military.

After DADT’s 2011 demise, the unit cohesion rationale was so discredited that the Pentagon didn’t even try to use it to defend its transgender ban. Instead, officials focused on medical disqualifications contained in military regulations, insisting that transgender personnel would be unable to deploy in the “austere environments” of war without needing burdensome care.

Once again, when experts—and eventually the military itself—began to conduct actual research into this rationale, the argument melted away. A 2014 report sponsored by the Palm Center and authored by a panel of military and medical experts found that there was “no compelling medical reason” to ban transgender service members. A RAND study commissioned by the Pentagon under President Barack Obama studied the issue exhaustively and found that the impact of open transgender service on readiness would be “negligible.” It’s important to recognize that this word was not used because researchers found any actual threat to readiness, but simply to express their finding that the number of individuals who were likely to become undeployable for medical reasons was so small as to be imperceptible to the military’s mission.

Or to its budget. RAND estimated that, at the high range, the cost to the military to cover transgender-related medical care would be $8.4 million per year, representing a miniscule one tenth of one percent increase to the current military health care budget.

And so we come to Donald Trump. It is unlikely that the most petulant, mendacious, and incurious man ever to occupy the Oval Office has the faintest clue about the years of research finding that sexual minorities don’t create burdensome “medical costs” or “disruption” for the armed forces. Like a true autocrat, he issued a decree without an ounce of thought or concern for the sweeping impact it would have on thousands of Americans who are valiantly serving their country under his leadership. It’s not transgender service that is costly or disruptive, or that threatens military cohesion or readiness; it’s a Commander in Chief all too eager to put his own exercise of raw political power above the lives of his own troops.