Trump’s attempted ban of transgender military service remains steeped in confusion, chaos
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 25, 2018
WASHINGTON — A White House effort to ban transgender people from military service is mired in confusion, chaos and a web of litigation a year after President Donald Trump fired off tweets that ignited the controversy, several lawmakers, advocates and lawyers said Wednesday.
For now, a 2016 Pentagon policy to open the military to transgender individuals remains in place, but a Trump administration effort to reverse that plan has created a chilling effect for potential recruits and heightened fears for some servicemembers, some advocates contend.
Four court cases contesting the ban have put the Trump transgender ban on hold, and could extend into a fight for months or years, advocates said during a call with reporters on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Trump’s tweets to institute the ban.
“These servicemembers are willing to die for this country and that announcement and that policy are insults to their bravery,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., ranking Democrat for the Senate Armed Services Committee subpanel on personnel issues. “The good news, your lawsuits are working and your voices are helping convince people that this policy is wrong. So far we are winning… we have to keep fighting and we have to raise our voices and to fight this ban and make sure our transgender American’s who want to serve can serve. They have never stopped fighting and we should not stop fighting for them.”
Trump caught the Pentagon by surprise in July 2017 when he announced through a series of three tweets he would ban transgender individuals from military service, reversing a 2016 policy announced by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. But Trump’s ban was blocked from implementation through ongoing challenges to it in federal court.
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. 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 would entail. Thank you,” Trump’s July 26, 2017 tweets read.
About a month later, Trump formally issued a new directive to the Defense Department to issue the ban. With that, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a new 48-page policy in March to ban most transgender individuals from serving in the military. The transgender military ban by Trump has since been blocked by four federal judges, with injunctions pending the outcome of four discrimination lawsuits filed by transgender individuals and advocates against the federal government.
Following the Trump tweets, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and more than 50 retired generals and admirals condemned the move.
Gillibrand, along with Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, have filed legislation to block a military transgender ban. Gillibrand through a series of Senate Armed Services Committee hearings this year was able to confirm with all four military service chiefs that transgender servicemembers have not impacted morale or created problems for the services. Also, current and formertop U.S. medical officials charged the ban was not based on a medically valid reason.
“There is almost no support for this, this is purely a political move by this president,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., ranking Democrat for the House Armed Services Committee, who was also on the call, told reporters. “Our military is stronger when it is open and allows all to serve.”
Pentagon officials declined to comment on the issue Wednesday, citing the ongoing litigation.
The court cases are moving forward in Washington state, California, the District of Columbia and Maryland, and a trial is slated for late February to early March for at least one of the cases.
“Unfortunately… we’ve seen the Department of Justice fight us on this issue, every step of the way,” said Sasha Buchert, staff attorney for Lambda Legal and a Marine Corps veteran who is transgender. “It could be a while until the issue is finally resolved… the litigation could probably be a year or two depending on how fast the courts move on this issue.”
The Pentagon policy issued in March calls for the reversal of the policy by former President Barack Obama’s administration to lift the ban on transgender men and women serving in the military, but it allows people serving now to remain in the service. The new policy would disqualify from service all transgender people who require or have already undergone gender transition, and bans people with current or recent gender dysphoria diagnosis other than in rare circumstances.
“Despite Donald Trump and [Vice President] Mike Pence, the courts have stepped in,” said Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. “Despite these efforts, despite causing confusion and chaos, thousands of transgender people continue to serve.”
But advocates said the policy does create potentially chilling effects for current and future transgender servicemembers.
“Our transgender members and servicemembers who are subject to this policy, even though it is on hold, there is still a great deal of uncertainly,” said Peter Perkowski, legal director of the OutServe-SLDN, the country’s largest advocacy, support and legal services organization for the LGBT military community. “We are hearing from people from who want to enlist … we have a lot of concerns there is disinformation, lack of information, no consistency or outright bias that is affecting the ability of those who want to serve.”
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partners Association, the nation's largest nonprofit organization of LGBT military spouses and families, agreed.
“The uncertainty is very stressful, not just for the servicemembers,” Ashley said. “It’s a really difficult thing to face… but it is a distraction. They don’t need to be distracted.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this report.