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Transgender in the Military

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On 26 July 2017, 69 years to the day after President Truman issued the executive order desegregating the military, President Donald Trump posted a series of three tweets, which read,

“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.” 

This ignited a firestorm in the media, with many rushing to react in politically predictable ways.  Now, nine days later, it is still unclear just what the effect of the President’s order will be.  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs issued guidance that all service members will continue to be treated with respect.  While the Secretary of Defense has remained silent, he was reported to have been “appalled” by the manner and timing of the announcement, especially given an ongoing review and his own personal efforts to prevent GOP lawmakers from attaching anti-transgender language to last week’s spending bills.

Both sides were so quick to react, that knee-jerk reactions have superseded thoughtful, measured analysis and response.  Both sides feel strongly about this issue, and I do not dispute that they each have a legitimate response.  In an era of ever increasing partisanship and social media frenzy, I, like many others, had an immediate and visceral reaction.  The more I have thought about it though, I think that to consider this as a purely partisan issue is to miss the greater significance.  

The crux of the issue is that the military has a history of integration and of taking people who served with restrictions (from racial segregation to gender inclusion, or the elimination of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) and allowing them to serve more openly. Every person who signs up to sacrifice so much in every facet of their lives to serve the people of this country in a profession with stated values has a reasonable expectation, if not a duty, to live openly by those values, honesty and integrity chief among them.

There are many legitimate discussions to be had on this issue, for example whether the military has a responsibility to provide medical coverage for a transition, or whether the military has a responsibility to ensure that that happens during a Soldier’s active duty time.  Those important discussions are presumably ongoing as a part of the Secretary of Defense’s review. The president's tweets were couched in such a way as to suggest finality.  Most people, from the media to the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, appear to be taking a pretty broad interpretation of the tweets as a recommendation rather than an order.  At its most benign, perhaps all the President was talking about was reconsidering what medical services the military will cover or allow for service member while on active duty. That is a legitimate conversation to be had.

Regardless of one’s interpretation, a statement made in such a public forum does not only impact matriculating recruits and retirees.  Its effects range from psychological to legal for currently serving Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.  The three most extreme can be summarized as considering all currently serving transgender service members and:

  1. Stopping their transitions without regard for medical effects,
  2. Forcing them "back into the closet" if they want to continue to serve, and
  3. Kicking them out of military service wholesale.

If any of these interpretations is correct, therein lays the root of the issue. This constitutes the first time in our history that we would tell an entire class of people they are lesser, their service is less important, they can't serve, but if they do, they must violate their integrity to do so.  To force them to act in such a way that baldy contravenes our bedrock values as a military and as a country, and in contradiction to the way that we have previously told them to comport themselves while wearing the uniform of their country.

The Constitution guarantees all kinds of freedoms to individuals, and one of the first of these is freedom of expression – to choose one’s own way.  These are people who have chosen, like every other service member, to place their lives on the line to serve their country.  While the money issue is undeniably present, can a government enjoying the selfless service of such men and women ask them to do so in a manner fundamentally inconsistent with their true selves?

In my short time in the service, I have witnessed discrimination, subtle and overt, motivated by race, religion, and orientation.  If service members choose to don a uniform in defense of my family, my friends, and my neighbors, how they choose to live their private lives is none of my business and, as long as their service is unaffected, I believe, none of the government's business either. If leaders are truly committed to "taking care of troops," they owe it to them to fight for their chance to serve, and to do so with the same level of dignity and respect they accord every other service member.  

References: 

Chakraborty, B. (2017, 07 27). Defense Department to Trump on transgender ban: Not so fast. Retrieved from foxnews.com: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/07/27/defense-department-to-trump-o...

Cooper, J. H. (2017, 07 26). Trump Says Transgender People Will Not Be Allowed in the Military. Retrieved from nytimes.com: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/us/politics/trump-transgender-militar...

Mattis delays new transgender policy for US military. (2017, 06 30). Retrieved from Militarytimes.com: https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2017/07/01/mattis-d...

President Truman, H. S. (1948, 07 26). Executive Order 9981. Retrieved from trumanlibrary.org: https://www.trumanlibrary.org/9981.htm

President Trump, D. J. (2017, 07 26). @realDonaldTrump. Retrieved from twitter.com: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump