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The Trump administration’s controversial policy banning open transgender military service has been repeatedly exposed for what critics call its discriminatory and baseless premise. Yet, it still stands. As the Defense Department contradicts the latest misinformation spread by President Trump about transgender troops, efforts endure to repeal the policy considered unconstitutional by many medical professionals and LGBTQ+ organizations. Although transgender Americans proudly serving their country, and aspiring to do so, have had their livelihoods and futures thrown into uncertainty, many remain steadfast in their desire to protect and serve.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bree Fram tells Yahoo News: “The usual arguments against transgender people serving in the military are that we are a disruption to unit cohesion and morale, we cost too much and a whole host of other reasons. The same arguments were made against African-Americans, women, lesbians, gays and bisexuals — and every time proven wrong.”
The American Medical Association says: “There is no medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals from military service.”
According to a 2016 study from Rand, a nonprofit research institution, the impact of transgender troops in the U.S. military on readiness and health care costs would be small. Potential health care cost increase was estimated as 0.13 percent and any effect on readiness considered “negligible.”
The Obama administration used this insight from the Rand study to inform its decision to lift the ban on open service for transgender men and women on June 30, 2016.
Fram came out as transgender on the day the Pentagon lifted the ban. “I was so nervous of what the reaction was going to be. One by one, the people that I worked with came over to me, shook my hand and said it's an honor to serve with you.”
Only a year passed after the Pentagon lifted the ban on open service when Trump sparked panic with his July, 26 2017, tweets:
“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”
Says Fram: “We'd had the four service chiefs talk about the fact that there were no problems with people being trans in the services and the president had said during the campaign that he was going to be a great friend to the LGBT community. So, it truly was just a shocking moment of what does this mean?”
As the communications director for SPART*A, an organization that advocates for and educates about transgender military service, Fram had to reassure service members that they would not immediately lose their jobs. “Tweet is not policy.”
Jon W. Davidson, the legal director and the Eden/Rushing chair at Lambda Legal, replied to the tweets in a statement: “Transgender people have served our country honorably for years, making our military stronger and more inclusive. President Trump has shown that no one is safe from his administration’s attacks on LGBT people, not even those who risk their lives to defend our country. If this disgraceful tweet actually becomes policy, we will sue in a heartbeat.” And they did just that.
Lambda Legal and the Modern Military Association of America (formerly known as OutServe-SLDN and the American Military Partners Association) filed suit in August 2017 on behalf of transgender plaintiffs, including active service members and those who wanted to enlist, and LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations.
On Jan. 22, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a lower court’s injunction that had stopped the ban from going into effect. The court also agreed to hear arguments on transgender service in the military, although such action would occur while the ban was in effect. By March 12, the Defense Department released a memorandum outlining the policy that the military was ordered to adopt and that was scheduled to be enacted 30 days later.
Transgender troops actively serving were told that if they acquired a doctor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria before the April 12 deadline, they would be grandfathered in and allowed to continue or start hormone treatments and plans for gender transition. Anyone actively serving who received the diagnosis after April 12 would not be permitted to take hormone treatments or get transition surgery. Those troops would be forced to serve in their birth gender. A race against time was started. Some troops were compelled to out themselves as transgender before they might have been ready to just so they could obtain the gender dysphoria diagnosis to secure their jobs and future medical care.
Fram and her wife, Peg, had many difficult conversations about whether or not to get the diagnosis. “I had the really difficult decision leading up to that implementation of should I get this on my record. And it's something I had always fought passionately against because a portion of the diagnostic criteria for having gender dysphoria says you must have clinically significant distress. And that's something I didn't feel,” says Fram. Ultimately, the need to protect the future for their family made the decision for them and she moved forward with getting the diagnosis. Although it was the best decision they could make at the time, Peg still has misgivings. “It's terrifying because it was put out as if you do this, you're safe, your family is safe, you can continue getting medical care. You can continue to serve and keep your career. But in the back of my mind, there's always that fear that they're going to use that against them.”
Many transgender service members suffered in silence not knowing whether the careers they had invested time and energy in would be ruined or the sacrifices they had made for their country would be in vain. “I was in shock and my heart started to race; it was extremely disheartening,” says Natalie*, an Air Force second lieutenant (*name changed to preserve anonymity). Like many others, Natalie was confused by the policy and about what she should do. She was, and still is, in the closet. Coming out as a transgender woman was not something she was ready to do, but would she need to in order to get the gender dysphoria diagnosis and protect her future career? She reached out to SPART*A for advice and it was recommended not to get the diagnosis. Natalie learned that if she came out as transgender and got the diagnosis, she would be grounded by the Air Force.
Fram says: “There are a lot of people in the service that either the diagnosis, or the treatment, affects in one way or another. The biggest class of those are pilots and aircrew. In the Air Force with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, flight crew are immediately grounded. In other services, it usually is with hormone replacement therapy those aircrew become grounded. It's something that is not in line with how the FAA handles it for pilots. If our doctor says we're qualified and capable, we should be able to do the jobs that we've trained so long and hard to do.”
The ban put Natalie in the position of making an impossible decision. “Choosing to stay [in the Air Force] and continue to repress and stagnate the growth that I so desperately need to be my authentic self and my happiest and most productive and most everything — do I put that on hold until I finally can start that transition? Or do I find a way to break the contracts I have and get out while I can?”
Although the U.S. Department of Defense still asserts that the policy does not ban transgender individuals from service, transgender Americans are experiencing restrictions on their ability to enlist or serve openly without fear of repercussions based on their gender identity. Natalie calls into question the need to define a “ban,” saying, “Bans prohibit things and currently there is a population that is prohibited from being who they are and doing what they want to do.”
Even though the president says he wants to grow the American military, this ban seems at odds with that endeavor. ROTC National Scholarship recipient Map Pesqueira says, “In 2018, the Army didn't even reach its recruiting goal and now they're going to have a harder time reaching the 2019 goal because they have to turn away transgender people who are fully capable of meeting the standards and criteria to become a soldier and serve their country.”
For as long as he can remember, Pesqueira had an affinity with the military and dreams of joining. Growing up, he believed himself to be a boy and not until attending school and being bullied did he realize he was not living up to the female gender representation society expected of him. “I was in the box of conforming to society's expectations of who I should be since I was born female.”
By the time Pesqueira was a high school senior, he had come out to his parents as transgender with a plan and research in hand explaining how he would start his transition. “I got a three-year ROTC national scholarship for my academics. I had my scholarship in hand, I had my college admission and I felt like I was on top of the world. I was graduating high school and it was a great time for me and I was out. I had an accepting family. I was very grateful for that and so everything was going the way I had planned it to go.”
Pesqueira’s ROTC experience at college was short-lived. When the tweet’s came out, he held on to the belief that there was no way Trump could enact a ban on transgender troops. “It's idiotic. It's a discrimination against transgender people who are fully capable of serving,” he says. The ban landed a devastating blow to his future. In January 2019, the Supreme Court lifted an injunction placed on the ban by a lower court, allowing the ban to go into effect.
“Once that implementation date came out of April 12, I didn't know what to do. Nobody told me you're being held to the old policy or you're being held the new policy until April 12. My adviser told me you're not medically qualified under the new policy, it's been a pleasure working with you and thanks, bye. My scholarship had been ripped away from me because of this new policy.”
Even in the face of evidence contradicting the necessity and constitutionality of the ban, Trump makes false claims. On ITV’s “Good Morning Britain,” the president recently said this about transgender troops: “They take massive amounts of drugs, they have to — and, also, you’re not allowed to take drugs in the military, and they have to after the operation. They have to. They have no choice. And you would actually have to break rules and regulations in order to have that.”
Defense Dept. spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell contradicted the president’s claims in her reply to a question from the Washington Post:
“The Military Health System covers all approved medically necessary treatments and prescription medications. If a service member has a hormone deficiency for any reason (such as hypogonadism, hypothyroidism, menopause, etc.), he or she would be prescribed hormones.”
Maxwell said troops serving who received the gender dysphoria diagnosis before the April 12 deadline “will continue to receive all medically necessary treatment.”
SPART*A President Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann responded to Trump’s latest fabrication. “The interview showed the president's lack of understanding regarding transgender service members and he shared misinformation regarding the medical care they need and the cost of that care. He concluded that there are standards and service members must meet those standards. We are in complete agreement on that point. Transgender members of the military serving around the world do just that: meet the standard and accomplish the mission."
Accomplishing the mission of a return to open transgender military service is exactly what Fram and her colleagues plan to do. “The president said he was doing the military a favor by implementing this policy and in a strange way, I think he did do us a favor. Because when he tweeted, public opinion was roughly split on whether transgender people should serve in the military.” Today’s release of a Gallup Poll conducted this past May shows 71% of Americans now support transgender men and women being able to serve openly in the military.
Fram says: "The three best things an ally can do are sharing the stories of our honorable service, calling or writing your elected representatives to express your support of open transgender service, and donating to national and local organizations that fight for civil rights.
“We should not turn away anyone just because they happen to be something we're a little bit afraid of.”