The Trans Military Ban: What Is It, and Why Should We Care?

trans military ban
People wave LGBTQ+ pride flags outside the White House. Credit: thegroundtruthproject.org.

You can ask any transgender service member what they were doing on July 26, 2017, and they’ll remember. You could probably ask any trans person, period. 

“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,” began a series of tweets by President Donald Trump on that day. 

Trump, before that point, hadn’t indicated that there would be a change in the military policy passed in 2016 that allowed transgender people to serve openly. 

The policy was based on a yearlong study by the RAND Corporation, that had determined there would be “minimal readiness impact” upon the U.S. military should trans people be allowed to serve. 

Now, it could be said that this policy lulled trans soldiers into a false sense of security. 

“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,” Trump finished. “Thank you.” 

 

First, what is “transgender”? 

In 2016, NPR reported that 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender. So, what exactly does that mean? 

“For me, being transgender means that I feel I am a different gender than the one I was assigned at birth,” explained Army LTC Jessica Laney. 

I found LTC Laney through an organization called SPART*A. SPART*A is made up of trans service members and veterans, and provides a network of support, along with advocating for trans rights within the military. 

LTC Laney was assigned male at birth, but in later years discovered that she is actually a woman. Many trans people, including her, have always felt like they were “different”, but never had the words to describe exactly how. 

TSgt Bailey Muffett, a C-17 crew chief in the Air Force, also recalled her experience.

“I started wearing women’s clothes when my parents were going through a divorce, and I just thought it was a way for me to cope. But I was like, ‘Why does this feel so right?’” 

Here are some basic terms often used when talking about transgender people:


  • SEX – Your sex refers to your biological chromosones, with XY being the male chromosones and XX being the female. These are generally correspondent to certain internal sex organs and genitalia, which is how most people are “identified” from even before they are born.
  • GENDERGender is a term used to describe how an individual personally identifies. It’s usually male or female, but is not limited to the two. When a person’s gender aligns with their sex, they are considered “cisgender”. When the opposite is the case, they are “transgender”. 
  • GENDER DYSPHORIA – Gender dysphoria encompasses the mental and emotional strife that someone experiences as a result of being trans. They usually feel a disconnect between their mind and body, and living life as their biological sex can cause anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation. It is considered a medical condition and treatment can alleviate and even cure dysphoria. 

“I was always ‘one of the boys’ growing up, and liked a lot of stereotypical male items,” said PO3 Ryan Robinson. 

“When I was about 16, I had a dream I had a male body. When I woke up and was still in my female body I was devastated, but as far as I knew I couldn’t change that.”


trans military ban
PO3 Ryan Robinson.

Tweets turn into policy

In August 2017, the Trump administration decided to put his July tweets into formal policy. 

The plan was to return the military to its pre-2016 era that banned trans troops from being open about their gender identity. Essentially, they could serve — they just couldn’t tell anyone about being trans, or seek medical transition. 

It was supposed to go into effect in March 2018, but progress on the policy was quickly halted by federal courts, with three injunctions placed on the ban as well as a high-profile lawsuit filed against Trump by two major LGBTQ+ rights organizations. 

A new version of the ban came out in March instead, which stated that “transgender persons with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria — individuals who the policies state may require substantial medical treatment, including medications and surgery — are disqualified from military service except under certain limited circumstances.” 

This is the policy that ended up going into effect on April 12, 2019. There are two exceptions to it:

  1. Trans service members who began serving before the memo and were officially diagnosed with gender dysphoria prior to April 12 can continue to serve. 
  2. Service members with a history of gender dysphoria that have been “stable in their biological sex for at least 36 consecutive months” prior to April 12 can continue to serve.

 

Breaking down the policy: Cost 

One of the biggest reasons behind the trans military ban is the medical costs that would be incurred by the military should trans people be allowed to serve. 

This is broken down best in the 2016 study by the RAND Corp. It found that: 


  • There’s not that many trans people serving. In actuality, there are between 2,150 and 10,790 trans troop members, including those in the Reserve. This number refutes the popular statistic of 15,000. The RAND Corp. looked at multiple sources, including social security data for name and gender changes. With that said, it’s almost impossible to know the true number because so many trans service members remain hidden; unwilling or unable to disclose their gender identity. 
  • Trans-related health care isn’t that expensive. Based on the number of trans troop members, health care costs would increase by between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually. This is a 0.04 to 0.13 percent increase in active duty health care expenditures. 

For trans service members who have been “grandfathered in” under the new policy, the military will cover medically necessary and gender-affirming treatment. 

The military already provides free counseling to all its active service members, as well as medical care from a primary service provider. The cost of hormones can vary, but it is generally $20 a month for oral estrogen tablets for trans women, and another $20 for the accompanying spironolactone. For trans men, injectable testosterone is roughly $80 a month

In comparison, surgery is more expensive. Common surgeries include breast augmentation for trans women, which can cost anywhere between $5,000 to $10,000, and double mastectomies for trans men that are around the same price. 

Critics say that gender-affirming treatment is purely cosmetic and not necessary for transgender patients, however, the military also pays for other medically unecessary treatments; their budget for viagra was unveiled in 2017. 

$41.6 million is allocated to viagra alone, with about another $40 million spent on other erectile dysfunction medications. 

 

Breaking down the policy: Deployability 

Other components of the RAND Corp. study found that:


  • Not many people will be “non-deployable” due to trans-related treatments. “Each year, between 29 and 129 service members in the active component will seek transition-related care that could disrupt their ability to deploy.”
  • The total downtime for trans service members is pretty low. Transition-related treatment would lead to a loss of less than 0.0015 percent of total available labor-years for active duty. In just the Army, for other medical, legal or administrative reasons, 14 percent of active duty soldiers couldn’t deploy in 2015.

Right now, deployability is a big factor on whether people can serve in the military. From an outsider’s perspective it may seem like trans people are down and out too often to be effective in the Armed Forces. 

“I don’t just randomly take days off of work so I can go to appointments,” LTC Laney commented. “For me to do my name change, I had to use my personal leave.”

In addition, most surgeries for trans people don’t have recovery periods longer than two weeks. The ones that do are also the ones that are the most expensive, and least sought-after by trans patients. 

“It doesn’t affect my deployability,” added TSgt Muffett. “And I personally know trans people who still deploy, still do their jobs, and their transness has nothing to do with their mission capability.” 

LTC Laney and TSgt Muffett have 20 years and 19 years in the military, respectively. 


trans military ban
TSgt Bailey Muffet.

What it means for trans service members 

“I cried [when the President tweeted about the trans military ban],” LTC Laney recounted.

“I was deployed, and I was running a communications section… but I was sitting on my computer and I actually got a message from a friend that said, ‘Have you seen the news?’…”

“It took everything out of me… it literally felt like my heart was sucked out of my chest. This country that I’d been serving for so many years doesn’t want me anymore. I had five deployments and 18 years of experience, top notch evals, and to be told that because I wanted to be my authentic self, I was no longer good enough to be in the military anymore… I broke down.”

LTC Laney has spent her military career jumping out of planes in the 82nd Airborne Division, and then serving as a signal officer after OCS (Officer Candidate School). She says she works on “computers to satellites to weapons systems and everything in between.” She only began to transition a couple years ago, and is formally coming out at her job now. 

“My 20-year mark was actually one of the things that I waited on. It was a safety mechanism for me, and a lot of others don’t have that,” she said. 

“I was fighting the idea [of being trans] for a really long time, because I’m trying to keep a marriage together, and because of the repercussions of family and work… so I was fighting it. My counselor asked me one time: ‘If you knew you were dying a year from now, what would you do?’ And I said: ‘I would transition instantly.’”

Even though trans people often know they would rather have been born into their gender, it’s another thing altogether to come to grips with being trans. It entails coming out to everyone you know – which is not only a vulnerable thing by itself, but typically has some nasty repercussions. 

 

“It’s scary to be a trans person in America.”

LTC Laney paused after she said this. “What’s scary about it?” I prompted. 

“I feel like people have been given permission to… be bad. That’s not the right word exactly, but it’s like they’ve been given permission to discriminate.”

She paused again, seemingly at a loss. 

“What exactly are you scared of?” I asked again. 

“I’m scared about bathrooms,” she expressed, her words coming more quickly now. “There’s laws in places that don’t allow a transgender person to go into a bathroom.” 

“I had a friend who was in a hotel helping out hurricane victims in North Carolina. She was transitioning, and looked very female, but was kicked out of the hotel — the manager came to the room, and then the police came and removed her from the hotel because they were allowed to do that. Then she was sleeping in a gas station and going to the women’s restroom to change and get ready, and when she came out she found police waiting for her. She was arrested for being in the women’s restroom and then taken to jail, where she was put in with the male population and was — raped. Just to hear something like that is just…” 

“How do you deal with that?” LTC Laney asked out loud. I did not have a good answer. 

“What am I scared of? I’m scared of that. I’m scared of what people have permission to do now because they fear a transgender person in the bathroom. I fear uneducated minds.”

 

Why should you care about the trans military ban? 

Keeping trans people hushed away under a new version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be detrimental. Not only to the people who have to hide themselves, but to entire units. 

“I think my ability to be a leader has improved, because I’m closer to my troops — I’m not hiding this big part of myself and trying to be masculine and hard,” LTC Laney stated.

“I have closer friends now than I’ve ever had in my entire life.”


A protester holds a sign that says: Military readiness & civil rights. Not bigotry. Let transgender troops continue to protect us! Credit: Jurist.org.

PO3 Robinson, who’s a storekeeper in the Coast Guard, had a similar experience. 

“Being secretive about it just incubated the shame I had for myself. The more open I was, the more I found people who cared and wanted to be a source of support for me, and in turn I became more confident and comfortable.”

In a gesture of support, PO3 Robinson’s unit showed up to his name change hearing with balloons and words of encouragement. 

TSgt Muffett had this to say: “When you have to live two lives, your whole self suffers. And when your whole self suffers, your mission suffers too.”

 

The takeaway

There will always be trans people in the military. The difference with the trans military ban is that trans people won’t feel safe to come out or seek the proper treatment, whether that includes therapy, medical transition, or both. This is what leads to higher mental illness and suicide risk in our active duty population. 

When we ban an entire group of people from serving their country, it sends the message that there’s something wrong with them. But being transgender isn’t something to be ashamed of. 

“We all have histories, and different things that make us into the person we are,” TSgt Muffett said. “I think we come to know ourselves in the moment we’re supposed to.” 

 

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