In 2016 President Obama issued an executive order to allow transgender individuals to serve openly in the military. It was unprecedented for our country but hardly revolutionary.
Nineteen other countries including Canada, England, Israel, Australia, Austria, Sweden, and even President Trump’s beloved Norway already allow transgender troops to serve without restrictions. Obama based his decision on a study by the Rand Corporation, which concluded that allowing transgender people to serve would have “minimal impact on readiness and health care costs for the Pentagon.”
Enter Donald Trump, stage right. He signed a March 23 memo that would ban most transgender individuals from military service, doubling down on a pledge he made last year via Twitter blast. At that time, he called transgender soldiers a disruption and blamed them for “tremendous military costs.”
With major military bases in our backyard, this Editorial Board saw that reckless tweet as an assault on the thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line for our country and serve with distinction.
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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gave us hope when he said the matter deserved an in-depth look. Mattis allowed transgender personnel to continue serving pending a six-month Pentagon study.
Meanwhile, Trump demanded that military recruitment consider transgender a "disqualifying psychological and physical condition.” Mattis ended up missing Trump’s deadline, saying the “issue was complex.” But last month he made a recommendation that largely aligned with the president’s views: Transgender military personnel threaten the survival and success of service members around the world.
With limited exceptions, Trump’s new order says military personnel can only serve “in their biological sex” and are disqualified if they’ve had gender reassignment surgery or treatment.
The problem is that no science or other data back up this decision; it’s fed by an outdated trope that says being different equates to something unwholesome, even dangerous. It hauntingly echoes the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell days when gay and lesbian Americans couldn’t serve openly.
In his executive summary, the president acknowledges the absence of evidence in the Pentagon study, saying it relied on “professional military judgment acquired from hard-earned experience.” Trump called the matter “necessarily subjective.”
The American Psychological Association doesn’t see it that way, nor do a pair of former U.S. surgeons general. Jocelyn Elders and David Satcher said Trump’s decree will “stigmatize transgender Americans and justify limiting their ability to serve in uniform and access medically necessary health care.”
And then there’s the matter of national security. When hostile forces around the world are showing teeth, this isn’t the time to weaken troop levels and morale. Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it well: “When less than one percent of Americans are volunteering to join the military, we should welcome all those who are willing and able to serve our country.”
Surprisingly, the Pentagon doesn’t keep figures on transgender personnel, but outside groups have estimated the numbers range from 1,300 to 15,000. In a military of 1.3 million members, Trump’s ignoble plan will not affect a large percentage, but in terms of civil rights, even one violation is too many.
Discrimination against race, religion, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation is anathema to American ideals and threatens the rich diversity of our armed forces.
Like many of Trump’s policies, this transgender ban will find its final battlefield in court; Washington state, home to 60,000 service members, was among the first to join a lawsuit last year. In Seattle, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman put a hold on Trump’s initial order and doesn’t seem keen to lift it.
We take comfort knowing that while our commander-in-chief may be powerful, he’s no match for the Constitution.