In what is surely a first, President Trump issued an order to the military via Twitter:
“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,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “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.”
This is not a massive sea change: Under Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the military already had restricted the service of trans people. But the expansion of previous policy, which Mattis had said “in no way presupposes the outcome,” has not become an outright denial of service. The scale of this ban is more massive than you might think: by some recent estimates, there are around 15,500 or so active duty transgender servicemembers who are now under direct threat of federal sanction, to say nothing of the approximately 130,000 trans veterans or national guard who are also at risk of losing benefits under this rule.
The issue of how to accommodate trans people in uniform is not a straightforward one, but arguing from a cost perspective, as President Trump did above, is not credible. According to a RAND study, the overall cost and service disruption is minimal. Moreover, there are vastly larger expenditures that remain unaddressed, such as unwanted procurement. Here is an example: In 2013 Congress forced the US Air Force to purchase, under objection, a dozen C-27J transport aircraft, which cost around $40 million per unit. They did this during the height of Sequestration, when budgets were tight, but because the manufacturing created jobs in certain voting districts it was rammed through despite the service saying they had no use for the planes. They went directly to the “Boneyard,” a massive dumping ground for unwanted aircraft in the desert in southwest Arizona.
To say the military “cannot be burdened” with accepting trans soldiers, while it spends hundreds of millions of dollars on equipment that is manufactured and send directly to a trash pile, is simply not credible. Military needs do not seem to have factored into this decision at all, since within an hour of the announcement a White House official went on the record to say that this was about a partisan calculation for 2018:
“This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin [note: states Trump won by extremely narrow margins], to take complete ownership of the issue. How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when Senators up for re-election in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaign?”
There will probably be a couple of interesting lawsuits that result from this. Log Cabin Republicans vs. United States of America resulted in a judge ordering an end to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which had stigmatized and threatened gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers (it was later rendered moot when the White House and Congress rescinded the law). The case, however, did not address the issue of trans servicemembers, who, no matter how strongly they present a given gender, face constant threats of discharge from the service.
This decision today places thousands of people at risk and reduces the military to a partisan pawn sending culture war messages to a voter base. It is not clear yet whether this ban is enforceable (or how it would be enforced), but the massive number of people affected is nevertheless disquieting. Given how blatantly partisan the announcement is, and how disconnected it is from any stated military need, there is a reasonable chance that lawsuits will successfully challenge this order and strike it down. So don’t despair just yet!