The Trump Ban on Trans Military Service

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!

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.