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The Myths of Transgender Military Service

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A.J. Shattuck

A series of tweets on the morning of July 26th signaled President Donald Trump’s intent to reverse Obama-era policies of equality and acceptance. In a callous announcement, the President said he would no longer allow transgender individuals to serve in the military. Since there was no solid push to enact this ban, the announcement came as a shock to many. However, the Pentagon responded, acknowledging that the President did have the authority to dictate policy on such matters, but that the exercise thereof required more than a tweet to alter the personnel policies of its 1.3 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.

That requirement was met on Friday when, as part of a massive week’s end news dump, the Trump Administration announced that the president had signed a directive ordering Secretary of Defense James Mattis to stop the induction of transgender persons into the military, and prohibiting the Pentagon from spending money to satisfy the medical costs of being a transgender individual in the ranks. The order gives Secretary Mattis wide discretion on what to do with the thousands of transgender Americans still serving in the military.

In late July, the tweets ignited a conflagration of passionate rhetoric on many sides, on many sides. In one camp, civil liberties organizations and LGBT advocacy groups were swift and harsh in their criticism of the sudden and shocking pronouncement. In the other, conservative legislators and groups, though smaller in collective voice, expressed their ardent support for the President’s decision.

The tweets brought about a similarly polarized set of opinions across the social media feeds of Americans. As a gay man and a member of the military, my Facebook feed was filled with the full spectrum of these divergent viewpoints. Statements of dismay and calls to action in response to the apparent assault on LGBT rights were met with posts from current and former military servicemen and women voicing their support for the President’s action, calling transgender individuals “unfit” for service.

Weeding out the raw emotion is difficult when debating an issue so driven by identity politics. However, after an intensive analysis of the facts one can begin to see the reality of the situation: the reasons commonly cited by supporters of the transgender ban are rooted in myth, disinformation, and outright lies. As with any legitimate debate, essential fact must be laid and myths dismissed before an informed discussion may take place. So, let us review the myths:

Myth 1: Permitting Transgender Americans to Serve in the Military Amounts to a Social Experiment.

By definition, a social experiment consists of introducing an element that is typically not present to a group of people. The Stanford Prison Experiment was a social experiment. Injecting a devout southern Baptist woman into a group of liberal Jewish men in New York to see what happens is a social experiment. Allowing a military organization to reflect the demography of the society it represents is not a social experiment. To the contrary, military units are healthiest when their demography matches that of the society they defend. Though unfairly ostracized and misunderstood, transgender Americans are not segregated from society. They are a part of most every community and they should have the same freedoms as everyone else. They are an ingredient in the American melting pot. Accordingly, their opportunity for military service should be no different. We have walked this road before: allowing transgender Americans to serve in the military is no more a social experiment than allowing blacks to serve alongside whites. Equal and fair treatment of all individuals is not an experiment. No group of people should be set apart from the rest of society. Yet, until 1948, military units were still legally segregated. There was no legitimate basis for this segregation beyond the narrow-minded racism than was so rampant and accepted in that time. Like then, the only thing preventing individuals from serving openly today is the same narrow-minded bigotry that has stymied equal rights protections of disenfranchised people for centuries.

Myth 2: Transgender Individuals are Unfit for Service.

It is difficult for Cis-gendered (non-trans) people to comprehend the internal struggle that every transgendered person goes through. In many ways, it’s akin to realizing that you’re gay. It begins with an inclination that what you feel isn’t consistent with what societal norms dictate. This is only the beginning: realizing that you’re different, then accepting the same, takes a lot of time and processing – it is a fundamental realignment of your core identity. Most Americans have never experienced this dysphoria; it is unknown to them even anecdotally, and therefore, it is foreign. So, in lieu of understanding, fear takes root. Different people become the ‘others.’ No attempt is made to understand their situation or their struggles. These ‘others’ then become ostracized and marginalized.  In this way, they are eventually viewed as less than whole and entirely unfit.

It may seem a stretch, but it’s the truth. It’s the reason gay men were wrongfully eschewed as pedophiles for generations. The fact is that, as with gay people, there is nothing disqualifying about transgender people. We simply cast them aside as different and unfit. They’re not.

First, a transgender individual is required to undergo rigorous behavioral health assessment prior to being approved for a medical transition. This process includes appointments and evaluations by both psychiatrists and psychologists. It is not a process that one can undergo on a whim or burdened by self-doubt. The rigor and rigidity with which a medical transition takes place requires the full confidence and dedication of the transitioning individual.

Second, the amount of courage it takes for an individual to come out as trans is quite remarkable. The ability to internally comprehend the dysphoria between mind and body, acknowledge it, accept it, address it, and then live openly is remarkable. By facing the inevitable social stigmatization head on, they demonstrate firm sense of mind and spirit. They know who they are. In that regard, they are generally more emotionally mature than their peers in the military. If they meet the physical standards and rigors set forth by the branches of the Armed Forces, there is nothing disqualifying about their military service.

Myth 3: Transgender Individuals Detract from Unit Cohesion and Readiness.

The military is a unique organization. It has a way of unifying people of all walks of life in collective comradery. Given the transitory nature of military service, any servicemember interacts regularly with an ever-changing group of people. It’s the dynamic that allows a Muslim kid from Minnesota to work together regularly with a Louisiana farm boy. It’s the dynamic that allowed me, a tall white dude from a very homogenous New York community, to form a tight-knit command climate with my short African American First Sergeant from Virginia Beach. In the military, people become accustomed to interacting and cooperating with people from all walks of life: it’s easy, as you relate with – and rely upon – people at a very basic level. In the process, differences that were once hard barriers to social interaction become mere variables as ignorance succumbs to familiarity. In the military, individuals learn to tune out the noise of unimportant distractions and get the job done.

I am not suggesting that everyone becomes friends with one another. But those differences that once might have been hard barriers to socialization, differences in religion or sexuality, are torn down. There is nothing truly distracting about the presence of a transgender person in the workplace other than the innate curiosity of the unknown and the battery of questions that accompany the exposure – curiosity, not hostility.

If anything, the controversy generated by this reversal in policy is a smoke screen for the damage being done. The process of integrating transgender Americans into the ranks was almost complete. Transgender service members and their command teams knew where and how their fibers wove into the dense fabric of the military. However, the administration, wielding large cutting shears, is now undoing the years of work put forth by public servants, and it’s making a hack-job if it. Actively serving transgender Americans now don’t know if they’ll be permitted to stay, and they don’t know how or where to find the medical care they need. The thousands of dollars required to transition is far too high a bill to afford without insurance, and this policy forbids that a servicemember’s insurance go to that end. This directive causes more confusion and detracts from readiness far more than maintaining the status quo would have.

Myth 4: The Military Pays Huge Costs to Fund the Medical Transitions for Transgender Individuals.

There are an estimated (the Pentagon will not release official numbers) 2,500 transgender servicemen and women serving on active duty, with another (estimated) 1,500 in the reserves.[1] Because they are in the military, they receive 100% of their medical care through the military health system and its insurance program, Tricare. This (single payer) system doles out an estimated $2.4-8.4 million per year on the costs of medical care associated with medical transitions for transgender individuals.[2] This may seem like a large sum; it is, after all, millions of dollars. But, given that the Pentagon is the world’s largest employer and that it has the largest budget of any government agency by a significant margin, the financial burden is actually quite small. This cost is less than 0.001% of the actual defense budget. The Army spends more on researching camouflage patterns than it does providing medical procedures and prescription medications to transitioning individuals. If budget hawks were concerned about reining in exploding military costs, then it would focus its effort on truly wasteful spending, such as the F35,[3] or negligent oversight practices in Iraq and Afghanistan,[4] or by fixing its broken procurement and acquisition programs that lead to billions of dollars of budget overruns for the construction of a single ship.[5]

Myth 5: Barring Transgender Americans from Military Service is in Keeping with Traditional American Values.

What are traditional American values? Most might take this to mean right-wing evangelical social conservatism, the same kind of conservatism that is maligned and parodied daily on satirical news shows and Saturday Night Live. But these are not traditional American values. This nation was founded to be a shining city on a hill where individual liberties triumphed and citizens were free of a monarch’s total rule. It was founded to be a place where “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”[6] The Founding Fathers were not interested in dictating how people lived their lives or  codifying conservative Judeo-Christian principles into law. They wanted an agnostic government that supported everyone’s right to practice their religion as they saw fit and to live their lives with minimal interference from the government. Preventing transgender Americans from serving their nation is not in keeping with these traditional American values or the Founders’ vision for this country.

Myth 6: Transgender Individuals Require Hormone Treatment Not Conducive to Combat Conditions in Austere Environments.

Yes, personnel undergoing medical transition require hormone therapy. That therapy often includes daily prescriptions and periodic injections. There are no Walgreen’s (sorry, CVS) in combat zones, no corner drugstore from which to refill these prescriptions. But, this is another straw-man argument. The military deploys thousands of soldiers each year who require daily prescriptions. As one of those individuals, I’ve never had an issue. Military doctors plan ahead and provide up to 180 days of drugs for deploying servicemen and women. Six months of prescription medication is plenty of time to cover any real-world contingency that may require the deployment of the U.S. military to an austere environment. After that, forward-deploying medical commands and facilities will be able to cover any prescription or treatment needs of any Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine; it’s their most fundamental mission.

The Politics of Fear

The main arguments cited by supporters of the transgender ban are false and born of fear and hate mongering. Transgender Americans have been unfairly maligned in this country for far too long. Their plight, though not easy to relate to, is not disqualifying. Their acceptance into the military’s ranks is not a social experiment. They are not unfit for military service. They do not detract from unit cohesion and readiness. The military does not pay huge costs associated with their medical care. They can continue to serve in deployed environments. Those who argue otherwise have either not done the research, are uninterested in objective facts, or been fed lies.

The increasingly tense political climate that currently exists in America is not a hospitable environment in which to debate these matters. Oftentimes ignorance, hate and fear can shroud judgement and impair rational decision-making abilities. It is easy to buy into the fear of accepting people that we don’t understand. However, that shouldn’t be an excuse. Americans have consistently overcome ethnocultural divides to build a stronger nation. It’s been extremely difficult at times, and that difficult work continues today: despite generations of earnest effort, racial tensions still exist across America. But accepting individuals wholly and treating others as equals should be in our national DNA. After all, ninety-eight percent of Americans are descended from immigrants. We must again learn to sort out the misinformation and fear mongering to get at the root of these social issues that enflame America’s passions. Only after doing so can we realize that as a nation, we are strongest when we are free to be our true selves and accept others in their exercise of the same. That’s what truly makes America great.

References: 

[1] Schaefer, Agnes Gereben, Radha Iyengar, Srikanth Kadiyala, Jennifer Kavanagh, Charles C. Engel, Kayla M. Williams, and Amii Kress. “Assessing the Implications of Allowing Transgender Personnel to Serve Openly.” RAND. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1530.html (accessed 27 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Broder, Jonathan. “More Bad News for the F-35, the Plane That Ate the Pentagon.” Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/more-bads-news-f-35-plane-ate-pentagon-378110 (accessed 27 August 2017).

[4] Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. "Final Report to the United States Congress." Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. September 09, 2013. http://cybercemetery.unt.edu/archive/sigir/20131001092420/http://www.sig... (accessed May 22, 2016).

[5] O’Rourke, Ronald. “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress.” Federation of American Scientists. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RS20643.pdf (accessed 27 August 2017).

[6] Madison, James. “Federalist Papers No. 51.” Bill of Rights Institute. https://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/primary-source-... (accessed 27 August 2017).