trump and pence
Credit: The White House/Flickr

This is admittedly, not a subject that I have had my eye on or researched, but the president’s announcement seems impetuous.

In tweets Wednesday morning the president wrote: “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. Thank you”

A quick glance at Wikipedia refreshed my memory and taught me a few things I did not know.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James openly supported a change to the military’s transgender policy, stating in 2014 that it was likely to be reviewed in the next year or so. In February 2015, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made a statement suggesting an openness to including transgender people in the military, stating he was open minded about it, and that nothing but individual lack of merit should preclude such people from service.

Carter’s statement was later endorsed by President Obama. On August 19, 2015, Carter stated in a memo that the Defense Department had begun the process of dismantling the ban and that transgender people would be able to openly serve in the U.S. military by May 27 of the following year.

It was announced on June 30, 2016 that, beginning on that date, otherwise qualified United States service members could not any longer be discharged, denied reenlistment, involuntarily separated, or denied continuation of service because of being transgender.

Obviously, the Obama administration went through a fairly lengthy process before they made these changes in policy. From reporting I found in The Hill and elsewhere, I learned that these policies were to apply to people already serving in the military and that Defense Secretary James Mattis needed to decide if transgender people would be accepted as new recruits. Maybe that decision has been made in the negative and this is what Trump is describing. If so, maybe there was some kind of deliberative process, although the way the president announced his decision seems preemptory and unfeeling.

On the other hand, what Trump actually wrote is that “the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” If that is accurate, then it’s a pure reversal of Obama’s policies and maybe the announcement of something more discriminatory than what existed prior to those reforms.

Here’s how things looked at a week ago:

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work issued a memo on May 8th of this year instructing service secretaries and chiefs to assess the military’s “readinesss to begin accepting transgender applicants on July 1st, 2017.” Those assessments were due on May 31st. Transgender advocates argue that Work’s statement left room for services to pull out of the implementation plan. “The personnel policies of this Department are designed to enhance the warfighting readiness and lethality of the force that protects our country,” Work wrote. “We do not intend to reconsider prior decisions unless they cause readiness problems that could lessen our ability to fight, survive, and win on the battlefield.”

Since readiness and health-care costs are ostensibly the primary concerns of top military personnel, let’s look at the evidence to see if this supposed well-placed hand-wringing might actually be window dressing that obscures more deeply rooted bigotry.

The centrist RAND Corporation issued a report in 2016 that found that open transgender service would have “minimal impact on readiness and health-care costs.” Researchers estimated that “10 to 130 active component members each year could have reduced deployability as a result of gender transition-related treatments.” In terms of health-care costs, “the study estimated that between 30 and 140 new hormone treatments could be initiated a year and 25 to 130 transition-related surgeries could be utilized a year among active component service members. Additional health-care costs could range between $2.4 million and $8.4 million, representing an approximate 0.13-percent increase.”

Similarly, a 2014 report by the Palm Center, an independent think tank, found that creating a policy that would allow open transgender service would be “administratively feasible and neither excessively complex nor burdensome.”

Estimates of how many transgender people are already serving in the active military and reserves vary from 2,500 up to around 15,000, but this is really more about rights and principles than numbers.

Trump has made his decision, and it looks like he took the harshest option.

[UPDATE] Here’s a partial (or complete) explanation:
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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at