The Military’s Transgender Ban: Bigotry Masquerading as Policy

Since June of 2016 when then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that transgender persons would be welcome to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces, at least 1,500 service members have come out as transgender. On an early July morning in 2017, aiming to throw his base a bone, President Donald Trump tweeted that transgender individuals would not be permitted to serve, in any capacity, in the U.S. military. As a result, on April 12th, 2019, the Trump Administration’s prohibition on the military service of transgender people went into effect, reversing a move by the U.S. military toward inclusion.

The announcement that trans people would be able to serve followed as a logical extension of a 2011 event that increased military inclusion: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” At one point, the concern that formed the center of arguments against the open service of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals was that their presence would negatively impact unit cohesion. This claim was entirely debunked by a range of scholars including a team of researchers at RAND Corporation. Neither does it hold up with regard to transgender military service. In April 2018, almost two years after the Carter directive, the chiefs of every military branch testified before Congress that the presence of openly transgender personnel had not undermined cohesion, one of the fears also cited as a basis for transgender exclusion. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley stated, with regard to transgender troops, “I have received precisely zero reports of issues of cohesion, discipline, morale and all those sorts of things.” Although it is too soon for extensive social science research on the issue of transgender military personnel and unit cohesion, available anecdotal data and the in-depth interviews that I have conducted suggest that it, too, falls apart as any kind of rationale for exclusion.

Although a thorough review of the concerns that have, in the past, been expressed by the DoD is beyond the scope of this commentary, detailed examination by others has illuminated the disingenuous nature of the ban. The DoD has cited mental health concerns, alleged problems created by the provision of hormone therapy and gender-confirming surgery, the perceived inability to deploy, and the alleged difficulty that the Military Health System will have providing support to a new population of clients as reasons for the ban. Yet, not only is there absolutely no evidence to support these assertions, there is evidence to refute them. In fact, in 2018, a panel of retired military Surgeons General and a range of scholars released a 55-page report indicating that the Defense Department’s (DoD) rationale for reinstating a prohibition on transgender military service was based on a series of mischaracterizations and distortions.

Studies conducted by experts in their fields and published by the Palm Center have shown each of the above concerns to be unfounded. In her analysis, Diane H. Mazur identified six inconsistencies regarding the medical care given to transgender and cisgender personnel. In one of the most revealing, Mazur illustrates how polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) alone is not considered a disqualifying factor for service. (Cisgender women with PCOS produce virilizing amounts of testosterone.) Nor is the hormone therapy that some cisgender women with PCOS receive to minimize the virilizing effects of the testosterone their bodies produce disqualifying. Yet, the use of the same hormone therapy for transgender women who wish to address the virilizing effect of the testosterone their bodies produce is disqualifying. What, then, motivates the “concern” over hormone therapy if, in fact, non-transgender service members routinely receive this care?

Among those who concede that the military is capable of adapting to the presence of openly transgender service members, the argument in support of prohibition sometimes turns to cost. The RAND Corporation has estimated that the cost of transgender health care might range from $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually. They then concluded “that the number of U.S. transgender service members who are likely to seek transition-related care is so small that a change in policy will likely have a marginal impact on health care costs and the readiness of the force” (69).  Compare those figures to reports that, between 2011 and 2015, DOD spent a total of $294 million on erectile dysfunction medications, with $84.24 million spent in 2014 alone. Clearly, the cost of providing transgender health care is nothing more than a red herring.

In 2014, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and Rear Admiral Alan M. Steinman, M.D., chaired “[a] nonpartisan national commission, comprised of medical and psychological experts, to consider whether Pentagon policies that exclude transgender service members are based on medically sound reasons.” One is compelled to ask, given the evidence suggesting that the cost of transgender health care is not really an issue at all, why the emphasis on medical concerns? The military has a long history of pathologizing gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they have also embraced the widespread pathologizing of transgender individuals. A history in which transgender people who sought care were forced to accept a medical model, rendering them as “sick,” served as the perfect template for opponents of trans service members to embrace. The Elders and Steinman report concludes, “. . . that there is no compelling medical reason for the ban, but also that the ban itself is an expensive, damaging and unfair barrier to healthcare access. . . “ (4). Their first recommendation was that the ban be lifted. There is simply no evidence to suggest that there is any basis on which to exclude transgender persons from military service.

In response to the announcement of the policy, American Military Partner Association President Ashley Broadway-Mack said, “We emphatically condemn this unconscionable transgender military ban because it undermines military readiness, destroys unit cohesion, betrays our service members, and is based on nothing more than blatant bigotry." I couldn’t agree more. 

Máel Embser-Herbert, Ph.D., J.D., is a sociology professor at Hamline University and the author of Camouflage Isn’t Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality, and Women in the Military (1998, NYU Press) and The U.S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy: A Reference Handbook (2007, Praeger Security International). They are the author of “Transgender Military Service: A Snapshot in Time” in The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military (2017, Woodward and Duncanson, Eds.) and are currently writing, with Bryan Bree Fram, a book tentatively titled, With Honor and Integrity: Transgender Military Personnel in Their Own Words (NYU Press, 2020).


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