“Degrading military readiness”: Trans servicemembers speak out on Trump’s ban

Zinnia JonesPresident Trump’s July 26 tweets stating his intention to exclude all transgender people from the U.S. armed forces, citing “tremendous medical costs and disruption”, were met with surprise and alarm from many quarters. Most immediately, in the nine minutes between Trump’s first ambiguous tweet citing “consultation with my Generals and military experts” and his next tweet referring to trans troops, some at the Pentagon feared he was about to announce a military strike against North Korea. That day, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that Trump believes trans servicemembers erode “military readiness and unit cohesion”, but found herself at a loss to explain how this policy would be implemented and threatened to end the press briefing rather than take any more questions on this topic.

Trump’s impulsive announcement was later revealed as a hamhanded and overbroad attempt, encouraged by Steve Bannon, to satisfy several House Republicans who objected to a bill funding a border wall with Mexico because it also contained provisions funding medical transition care for trans troops. The following day, the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced “no modifications” to existing policy – providing an easy out for Trump to let the matter drop if he should choose to reconsider his snap decision.

According to several former and current trans servicemembers I spoke with, removing trans servicemembers is not likely to produce substantial cost savings, nor would this improve military readiness. Instead, implementing such a policy would incur far greater expenses, while also compromising readiness by eliminating thousands of troops who are already performing competently in crucial roles. In the current state of uncertainty, trans troops have been left in limbo, with many who had already come out now wondering whether they’ll be able to continue their military careers and support their families.

Banning trans servicemembers has never truly meant that no trans people will be present in the armed forces, only that they will be forced to conceal their identities while they serve. About 20% of trans people have served in the military, compared to only 10% of the American population. Previous studies have theorized that the hypermasculine environment of the military may draw in both closeted trans men seeking an environment where open expression of masculinity by women is valued, and closeted trans women searching for a way to repress their true gender and force themselves to be “men”. Kimberly Gray, a trans woman and Army veteran, noted: “When I joined I was really trying to fight being trans, I was terrified of coming out or being exposed, so I had my extra macho bullshit cover thing kinda going on.”

As trans people are far more likely to be economically disadvantaged and face discrimination in employment and housing, military service and its benefits can be an alluring option. According to Monica (name changed), a trans woman and Air Force veteran, “This situation also so terribly precarious for us because it represents a loss of potential education and job training benefits … Their livelihood is being threatened. They will ultimately lose benefits, potential pensions, friendships and family members along with identities and futures.”

Clearly, transgender military service is an enduring reality that will not go away even under the most hostile of conditions. The armed forces can either recognize this fact and make the healthier choice of openly integrating trans troops, as close allies such as Israel, Britain, Canada, and Australia have done, or opt to cultivate unnecessary suspicion and exclusion that will impact the lives of qualified servicemembers. “I served under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell … the stress from it was pretty big”, said Zell Gagnon, a trans woman who served in the Army from 2002 to 2006.  She spoke extensively of the personal pressure of serving in secret: “At any time I was fighting dysphoria, but any sort of indication of it could have ended my career, which was especially frightening because I was supporting my wife of the time as well.” Gagnon added, “It drove a culture of suspicion between soldiers as well. People didn’t want to associated with those they perceived as gay, in case they also got kicked out. Plus violence was not uncommon – that’s always great for troop readiness, right?”

Gray added that, after being discharged for other reasons, “I still didn’t have the nerve to just come out. I had heard plenty of horror stories about gay men being discovered and basically being jumped by groups of guys.” Penelope, an Air Force veteran and intersex trans woman, highlighted other dangers posed by an exclusionary policy: “Trans people are among the most sexually assaulted people in the military, always have been, and being able to serve openly gave more trans service members the ability to come forward. If they go back in the closet, rapists win big time.” Experiences of transphobic discrimination and rejection are known to be linked to negative health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, suicidality, and lower life satisfaction and quality of life, all of which could potentially compromise readiness. “It takes the stresses of being closeted in everyday life, and multiplies the risk a thousandfold … it was, basically, the worst thing I’ve ever been through, except maybe unmedicated depression”, said Gagnon.

Conversely, some servicemembers reported that openly serving had not been a disruption to anyone. Vanessa (name changed), a trans woman currently serving in the Navy, called this “utter horseshit”: “I’ve been out to my command as a whole since July of last year, when the ban was lifted; I was out to a handful of individuals before then. I’ve received nothing but support and camaraderie, from the friends I work directly with all the way up to my commanding officer. What’s going to be ‘disruptive’ is discharging several thousand trained individuals in the name of bigotry.”

Others pointed out that removing trans troops would not only be disruptive, but also remarkably costly. According to Penelope, “it costs over $100,000 to train a cryptologic language analyst (enlisted intelligence job). Kicking a linguist out and retraining a new one actually costs more and affects mission readiness more than an entire transition”. A study by the RAND Corporation found that providing transition-related medical care to trans troops would cost $2.4-8.4 million yearly. Savings from eliminating trans servicemembers would be miniscule compared to the expense of replacing them. The RAND study estimates that 1,320 to 6,630 trans people are serving on active duty in the military, and a previous GAO publication found that $53,000 in expenses were incurred for each servicemember discharged and replaced under the previous Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. From these figures, Trump’s proposed ban could be assumed to cost anywhere from $69.9-351.4 million in practice, an order of magnitude greater than the savings on medical costs. However, this doesn’t take into account the additional costs incurred by conditions such as depression and anxiety that can be exacerbated by serving while closeted and lacking access to appropriate treatment for gender dysphoria.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to see what real benefit would be gained from implementing the proposed ban. An anonymous Trump administration official suggested that they were instead betting on the potential political benefits, believing that advocacy by Democratic candidates of open transgender service would be offputting to a transphobic electorate in Rust Belt states. If true, this is an astonishingly cold calculation, disrupting the lives of thousands of competent servicemembers and stirring up public hostility toward trans people in the pursuit of short-term political gains. For River Stark, a trans woman veteran, the message was clear: “I feel hurt and quite frankly a little scared. I did my duty and got pretty fucked up in the process. I feel like that service is being diminished as something lesser.”

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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