The Real Cost Of Donald Trump’s Anti-Trans Military Stance

flickr/U.S. Army
‘We feel like sheep led to the slaughter.’

Update: On March 23, 2018, President Trump issued an order supporting a ban on many transgender troops.

June 30, 2016 — A voice came across my car radio while I was on my way into work. “Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will now be making an important announcement regarding the inclusion of transgender members of the military.” Immediately I pulled my car over and turned the radio up. “This is the right thing to do for our people and for the force,” he went on. “We’re talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission.”

It was the culmination of years of patient planning; finally, for people like me, our identities would no longer be cause for rejection from serving in the U.S. military. At the time, I was serving as a civilian in the U.S. Army, and although the policy didn’t directly impact my eligibility for employment, the move still held great significance as a milestone for how far acceptance of transgender people had come even in a few short years.

Service in the military has long been intrinsically tied to duty and national identity. A millennia ago, military service was a qualifier for a person’s citizenship in Roman society. And since its inception in 1775, the U.S. military has been an outlet for Americans driven by a sense of service to contribute to policy objectives both at home and abroad. That profound privilege would now be open to transgender people, and I knew that my friends in uniform wouldn’t let this opportunity go to waste.

I had been serving openly as a civilian for only five months when the announcement was made, and it would still be months before any official guidance was released. As the only openly transgender person in my division, I knew how much work it would take to implement these changes in each unit in the military. For months after Ash Carter’s announcement, I would attend friendly leadership meetings, answering questions from mid-level officers about how to best serve the trans service members they knew and worked with.

Of all the officers I ever interacted with in that capacity, I never encountered a single officer who had a negative thing to say about the trans people under their command. “We’ve known about this situation for a while, and we just want to make sure he feels as comfortable as possible” was a common refrain heard from the parade of good-willed Majors and Colonels who I came into contact with. Of all the cases I saw, I can’t say I witnessed any interruption of work worthy of note.

There’s a lot that can be said about the U.S. military. There’s a lot of room for honest criticisms about the policies that govern it and the purposes the executive branch may commit it to. But one thing that makes the military beautiful is that when it matters, the social barriers that divide us fade away, at least temporarily. It doesn’t matter if the person piloting an A-10 overflight is gay, or if the radio operator on your ship prays to Allah. When your life depends on another person doing their job, superficial disagreements about how another person lives their life become unimportant.

One thing that makes the military beautiful is that when it matters, the social barriers that divide us fade away, at least temporarily.

On July 26, 2017, the president tweeted that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed to serve in any capacity with the U.S. military. Having left my job with the Army months earlier out of concern for the future of my own career as a trans person under an administration run by people actively working in opposition to trans people, this announcement didn’t impact me directly anymore. But that didn’t lessen the feeling of grief I felt for my friends who still held positions in the government, who themselves are in various stages of transition, including many who continue to put on the uniform and show up to their formations reliably every day.

I spoke to Petty Officer First Class Sarah of the U.S. Navy in wake of these tweets. “I’ve been in [the service] over 15 years, I don’t want to go back in the closet,” she said, “…my body just feels dead.”

There’s also a feeling of betrayal that accompanies the complete disrespect the Commander in Chief has shown to his own employees. “We feel like sheep led to the slaughter, enticed to come out, and now possibly kicked out for obeying lawful orders and regulations.”

For a community of people willing to pay for the bureaucratic whims in Washington with their lives, the infantile musings of a supposed businessman president with a lack of good management skills tweeting unofficial, unapproved, unauthorized orders is the ultimate insult.

President Trump’s recent take on transgender military policy is completely antithetical to any sense of good governance — which is ironic, considering the conservative political establishment supposedly prides itself on military policy prowess. These tweets are symptomatic of the sloppy and dangerous management style that has defined Trump’s presidency, and raise serious questions about the nature of ambiguously official communications, especially in regards to the application of national security policy.

In claiming that this measure is in any way related to the concept of military readiness or “unit cohesion,” Trump’s Twitter habits have created a laughably ironic environment of chaos for the routine-oriented branches of the U.S. Military. In doing so, he has inflicted uncertainty and confusion upon military units across the country, directly threatening their readiness and cohesion. He has also proven the contempt he holds for our people in uniform and their ever important and time-tested methods for doing their jobs.

President Trump’s recent take on transgender military policy is completely antithetical to any sense of good governance.

In another ironic twist, if Trump’s proposed policy of forcibly removing trans people from military service were to go ahead, that would mean paying out involuntary separation bonuses. For many (depending on their time in service), the price tag to the military could be significantly higher than the cost of surgery and decades of pharmaceutical medical care, which completely wipes away any suggested financial benefits to the military’s budget.

As the dust begins to settle from Trump’s careless communication, it is becoming clear how many layers of management (including the Joint Chiefs of Staff) he bypassed in order to make a valueless political statement. What comes next is anyone’s guess. Will the president soon decide that Muslims are a violent threat to the military and attempt to purge their ranks with his next rogue tweet? What about Hispanic service members? What about women?

If Congress doesn’t assert their right to check presidential management of the military, what’s to stop the president from wandering further down this path and declaring direct military action in a 3 a.m. tweet?

While the nation grapples with this absurd new reality, life will go on for those transgender members of the country’s armed services. As Sarah was told, “there will be no changes until a formal policy is approved, and we are to continue our care as we already were.”

We hope that this episode will go down as a minor bump on the road toward progress for a military which has come a long way over the last seven years on LGBT equality issues. Until more specific guidelines are released, transgender service members and veterans will wait with bated breath, worrying about whether they will be allowed to stay in their jobs while they continue doing a job their Commander in Chief was too afraid to do himself.

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