Current and Former Service Members Oppose Transgender Military Ban on Capitol Hill
by Jay Wu
Since President Trump’s July tweets proposing a ban on transgender people serving openly in the military, and a purge of openly transgender service members, the Pentagon has been working on a plan to fill out the details. Two panels convened by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have until February to present a plan to the President.
Meanwhile, opponents of the ban have mounted a formidable defense. The Trump administration is currently facing four lawsuits related to the ban. Two of the judges presiding over these cases, in the District of Columbia and in Baltimore, have called for a halt to the ban while their cases proceed. A judge in Washington state is expected to issue a ruling today.
As things stand right now, transgender people can still serve openly, and will be able to join the military starting on January 1, 2018. However, current and aspiring transgender service members continue to live in uncertainty about their future careers. For instance, the Trump administration has an appeal pending before the D.C. court. If successful, the military will not have to consider transgender applicants on January 1.
As these cases move through the courts, lawmakers in Congress are doing their part to oppose the ban. Bipartisan bills to stop the ban have been introduced both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. A legislative solution has the potential to take less time than any of the court battles, and would have clearer outcomes.
Six active duty and former service members from the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy spent a day on Capitol Hill last week advocating for these bills and to foster a deeper understanding of military service by transgender people among Congressional staff.
Army Col. (Ret.) Sheri Swokowski started her day on Washington, DC-based Good Morning Wasington with NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling, explaining how the ban impacts both active duty service members and veterans like her.
Col. Swokowski is perhaps the ideal spokeswoman for the merits of allowing transgender people to serve in the military. She is the longest-serving openly transgender veteran in the nation, with over 34 years of service under her belt (22 of which were active duty). Even after retiring from the Army in 2004, she continued to work with the military and other branches of the federal government.
Following a brief storytelling training with NCTE Community Storytelling Advocate Rebecca Kling, the service members briefed Senate staff on Capitol Hill. The bipartisan briefing, jointly sponsored by the offices of Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), was attended by dozens of Senate staffers.
During the Senate briefing, and a similar briefing for staffers at the House of Representatives, each speaker emphasized that open service by transgender people improves individual readiness, which in turn leads to improved unit readiness and improved military readiness.
The veterans — including Army Col. (Ret.) Suzanne Wheeler, who retired this year after 32 years of total service (28 of which were active duty, including two combat deployments)— discussed how they could have achieved even more had they been able to serve authentically.
The active duty participants confirmed that their experiences of being able to serve as transgender align with this line of thinking. Air Force Maj. Bryan (Bree) Fram, a rocket scientist who oversees all Air Force security assistance and coordination activity with Iraq, came out as transgender as soon as the original ban was lifted in 2016 and has been supported by colleagues since.
The participants all shared that while they were all strongly committed to military values, they were forced either to sacrifice the values of integrity and honesty, or to sacrifice their careers. The year she retired, Marine Corps Maj. (Ret.) Kimberly Morris learned that one of her former Marines was discharged for revealing that she was transgender, despite being a superior performer who was recognized as the best enlisted communicator in the Corps.
The active duty service members also emphasized the value of their skills and training — skills that the military has already made an investment in, and which would be lost if the ban goes through per the President’s vision.
For example, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann has been deployed 11 times and received the Navy’s highest logistics award for contributing to the fleet’s operational readiness in 2015. Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Valenzuela, who is currently the Mission Support Chief at the Defense Logistics Agency’s Joint Logistics Operations Center, served in Iraq in three different capacities and has served on multiple Air Force bases stateside.
The service members argued that discharging and replacing people like Lt. Cmdr. Dremann and Lt. Col. Valenzuela, who excel at their jobs, would be a waste of taxpayer money.
Participants also had the opportunity for visits at their Senators’ offices, and obtained rare meetings with three Senators themselves. Col. Swokowski and Maj. Fram met with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), who not only reaffirmed her support for open service by transgender troops, but also gave the service members a tip for ensuring that they could meet with their Senators in person. Because there were several votes happening in quick succession that day, she suggested that participants ask staffers to take them to the Senate floor.
Following this advice, Col. Swokowski was able to have a long-awaited meeting with Wisconsin’s other senator, Ron Johnson (R-WI), as he emerged from the floor between votes. The service members also met with Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who affirmed his belief that nobody who wants to and can serve should be turned away from the military. While they were unable to meet with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), who has previously echoed Sen. Moran’s sentiments, they did obtain a meeting with her staff.
To follow in the steps of these service members and show your support for the legislation opposing the President’s ban on and purge of transgender troops, contact your Senators and Representative now.
Jay Wu is Communications Manager at NCTE.