Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Navy

Trump Bans Transgender Americans From Serving in the Military

The president’s move reverses the Obama-era plan to phase in their participation.

President Trump has announced that transgender Americans will not be allowed to serve “in any capacity” in the U.S. military. On Wednesday morning, he tweeted that the U.S. 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.”

Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had announced last June that transgender individuals would be able to serve openly in the military. He issued guidance for medical care for these soldiers—including those who transitioned during their service—as well as training military leaders. Since then, it has been the military’s policy not to discharge or deny reenlistment to service members based solely on their gender identity. The full policy was set to be implemented by July 1, 2017. But at the end of June, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced a six-month delay to review the plan, assessing whether it would hurt the “readiness or lethality” of American troops.

Trump’s announcement is the latest in a set of steps his administration has taken to walk back Obama-era policies on transgender Americans. The biggest shift is the reasoning: Rather than framing his decision in the language of rights or morality, as Obama-era officials did, Trump spoke about the new transgender policy in terms of military efficiency. The decision is likely to trigger major pushback from Democratic legislators and LGBT activists who long pushed for full acceptance of transgender service members. It will also bring gender identity back into the spotlight, reigniting a culture-war debate surrounding a president who has tried to sell himself as a friend of LGBT rights.  

Rand, a research think tank, estimated that there are between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender Americans currently serving in the military out of 1.3 active-service members. While it’s impossible to know how many members would need gender-transition-related services, it’s likely that only a fraction would want to transition while in service—Rand suggested that somewhere between 29 and 129 people per year would make those requests. The “upper bound” of estimated requests was “0.1 percent of the total force,” Rand wrote. The expected costs related to these services were between $2.4 million and $8.4 million each year.

When Mattis announced the delay in implementing the Obama-era guidelines, he cited questions about the policy’s effect on service members’ ability to perform their duties. “Since becoming the Secretary of Defense, I have emphasized that the Department of Defense must measure each policy decision against one critical standard: will the decision affect the readiness and lethality of the force?” Mattis said, according to The Washington Post. “Put another way, how will the decision affect the ability of America’s military to defend the nation? It is against this standard that I provide the following guidance on the way forward in accessing transgender individuals into the military services.” While there has not been much research done on this question, according to Rand, policies welcoming lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans to serve openly in the military did not have an effect. The researchers expected “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness” resulting from Obama’s policy.

Legislators have also been working on potential ways to reverse or gut funding for the Obama administration’s policy. Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday that Vice President Mike Pence had been working with Republican Congressmen on amendments to the 2018 defense-spending bill that would have prohibited money from being used for medical services related to gender transition. This was a policy that many Republicans hated, although a small group of conservative legislators supported it.

There’s some evidence that the Trump administration’s motivation is not just about military efficiency—it’s also political. Jonathan Swan of Axios quoted an unnamed senior Trump administration official talking about the political consequences for Democrats who push back against the decision in 2018.

In the past, Trump has spoken supportively of LGBT rights, and on the campaign trail, he surprised some conservative backers with his cavalier attitude toward the now-infamous bathroom-bill controversy in North Carolina. At an event last April, he observed that the state’s legislators were “paying a big price” for their attempt to ban transgender people from using public restrooms that match their gender identity. He said that if Caitlyn Jenner came to Trump Tower, she could use any bathroom she wanted.

His administration’s policies, however, have signaled a different stance on transgender rights. Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced another transgender-related policy reversal. Under Obama, the Departments of Justice and Education had issued guidance to public schools requiring them fully accommodate transgender students, including allowing them to use bathroom and locker-room facilities that matched their gender identity. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos joined together to roll back that policy, citing a desire to “further and more completely consider the legal issues involved.”

Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military is part of an on-going effort to undo policies Obama developed late in his presidency. While the decisions have been framed as efforts to protect the rights of states and performance of troops, they inevitably hold a culture-war valence. In that sense, Trump has just made his entry into a new kind of battle—one that tends to animate his allies and enemies, but doesn’t seem to be a fight of his own.