Trump’s Trans Military Policy Is Worse Than “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Transgender Army veteran Tanya Walker speaks to protesters on July 26 in New York.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Media reports about President Trump’s transgender military policy, which he formalized in a directive late last week, have cast the new rules as something less than an outright ban on transgender service. The Associated Press reported that the policy “gave the Pentagon the authority to decide the future of openly transgender people already serving” and that the president “appeared to leave open the possibility of allowing some transgender people who already are in uniform.” A New York Times headline blared that Trump had given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “wide discretion” over the transgender ban. Indeed, some observers, including supporters of LGTBQ equality, seem to think the policy really isn’t so bad.

In reality, the new Trump policy is the worst of all possible worlds, in part because, like “don’t ask, don’t tell” before it, it’s been designed to be hard to fight in both the court of law and the court of public opinion. Like DADT, it will lose, but not before inflicting serious damage on both trans individuals and the military forcewide.

Let’s start with the notion that Trump gave the Pentagon “wide discretion” over the transgender ban. According to a new policy memo authored by five current and former military professors and released by the Palm Center, that assertion is flat wrong. “Contrary to media reports,” says the memo, the new Trump policy “does not provide the Secretary of Defense with wide discretion. Rather, the [Trump] memo mandates discrimination against transgender Americans while affording limited discretion to the Secretary only with respect to certain details of the implementation process.” The military scholars explain that Trump has reinstated the policy that existed before June 2016. “That prior policy was an outright ban,” says the memo.

While it’s true that some existing service members may be granted an exemption from this ban, that number is likely to be a smaller percentage of trans folks than the media is implying because the exemption options only apply during the short window in which the new policy is being implemented. After March 23, 2018, Defense Secretary Mattis no longer has the discretion to exempt trans troops from the ban. (In his memo, Trump invites the defense secretary to provide a recommendation to reverse the ban “that I find convincing,” but as the military scholars’ memo points out, this is entirely meaningless because the president’s advisers always have the option to try to convince him to change policies under his authority. Stating so in a memo is simply stating the obvious.)

The problem is that, well after that date, there will still be “existing” service members who may not have been granted exemption, either because they were not out, did not yet identify (to themselves) as transgender, did not come to the attention of the defense secretary, or for some other reason do not get either fired or exempted from discharge. They will remain in limbo, even though many will have joined the military after hearing the promise that it would be safe for them to serve.

The ban on new trans service members, meanwhile, is no small matter, and, in conjunction with a reversion to a ban on currently serving troops, it sets up a situation sure to be worse than DADT. Nearly 300,000 new applicants join the military each year. Using the scholarly figure derived by demographers at UCLA’s Williams Institute estimating that 0.6 percent of the military is transgender, that suggests that 1800 trans individuals join the military each year. Note that this occurred even while there was an outright ban. As ever, LGBT Americans have served in uniform notwithstanding policy strictures. And to the extent that Trump’s memo has dangled an amnesty over the next six months for existing service members, we might expect to see a surge of transgender recruits who conceal their identities and then hope for exemption once they’re in.

The real question posed by the political seesaw that has become LGBT military policy is not whether these minorities will serve in uniform—they will. The question is whether they will be able to do so in a climate of equal treatment, full access to the same medical care as their peers enjoy, and reasonable certainty as to their immediate futures. Trump’s plan destroys all of this. It craps on years of insistence by the military that it treated all troops with “respect and dignity” by creating a presumption of unsuitability even while exempting some “unsuitable” troops from removal. It explicitly denies existing trans troops the health care they need both to maintain their dignity and to be part of a ready force; and it creates a dangerous climate of uncertainty for thousands of trans troops, their commanders and their unit mates.

At least DADT, a Bill Clinton compromise hated by both sides of the political divide, offered a rationale seeking to explain the glaring inconsistency of conceding that gay people could serve while booting them for coming out. (Open service, went the logic, thin as it was ultimately proven to be, was the problem, so closeted service could theoretically avoid the threat to unit cohesion.) By contrast, Trump’s ban concedes that trans service doesn’t harm readiness, while banning trans entrants for no logical reason that can possibly be squared with retaining current trans troops. (The rationales given by the White House for the policy are such transparently effort-free attempts to paper over raw politicking that it scarcely seems necessary to refute them, though I have—here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

When I began my work researching LGBT military service early in the 2000s, I interviewed scores of gay and lesbian troops who had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. What I heard again and again made stark both the humanity of those being used as political pawns, and the connection between that humanity and military effectiveness. America does not just give health care, housing, educational opportunities, and a host of other benefits to its service members to be generous or even to attract talent. We take care of our troops because it’s the best way to ensure war readiness—the condition of having a personnel force in place who is not needlessly burdened with stressors like whether their families back home will be taken care of if something happens to them or whether they’ll pointlessly lose their jobs and livelihoods at the height of their efforts to fight our nation’s enemies.

It goes without saying, and yet must repeatedly be said, that Trump cares nothing for such concerns. He’ll impose endless uncertainty to consolidate his power, even at the expense of military readiness.

In a speech last week justifying a troop surge in Afghanistan, Trump hewed closely to a script in which he praised the “heroic example” of a diverse fighting force as the “inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God.” Our troops, he said “transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together—and sacrifice together—in absolutely perfect cohesion.” That was the current military Trump was describing, one which includes tens of thousands of LGBT troops. They too served together. They too transcended lines that divide the nation. They too sacrificed. They too comprised a force that operated in “perfect cohesion.” But by the end of the week, the real Donald Trump had resurfaced, doing all in his power to claw at the wounds of the nation’s body politic.