An Army staff sergeant with multiple combat deployments, in charge of an infantry squad.
A West Point grad innovating forward-based personnel support in a combat zone.
A Lieutenant Commander in charge of the supply chain for all of the Navy’s nukes.
A Navy doctor…an Air Force crew chief…a helicopter pilot…a Special Forces team leader…a drill sergeant. All transgender and all serving openly in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 transgender troops are on active duty, and there are many more in the Reserves and National Guard. Over 600 of them are part of SPARTA, a non-partisan advocacy organization made up of LGBT people who currently serve or have served in the military. While president of the group, I led its efforts to help lift the military’s ban on transgender service in 2013. Last week, I watched, as our work was undone by three tweets from the Commander-in-Chief. On July 26, he said:
“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.”
Now let’s be clear. In the words of an infantry company commander on this issue, “Military policy isn’t made by tweet.” If and when the president decides to meddle in military personnel policy, the White House would normally issue written guidance to the Secretary of Defense, whose office would then develop and issue guidance to the service secretaries, who, in turn, would issue guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military service chiefs would develop a plan, with timelines and specific instructions, to implement the new guidance. This is how policy is cascaded down to commanders through appropriate channels to implement new directives in an orderly fashion. All of this exists to ensure one thing: We do not compromise the mission.
The Defense Department spent 10 months studying the issue of transgender military service, evaluating readiness impacts and implementation. They took a cautious approach, even delaying a decision on enlisting transgender service members in order to come to agreement between the services on how long a transgender recruit should be “stable in their target gender” before being eligible to enlist. In late June, that decision was delayed another six months to gather more data at the direction of Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Meanwhile, transgender service members have been coming out, transitioning to the gender that fits them, and continuing to serve with honor. Yes, transgender service people are deployable. Their hormone medications are already available down-range, even in austere locations, because other service members take the same medications for a variety of reasons. Today a number of trans SPARTA members are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on ships and submarines around the world.
But readiness isn’t just about statistics and physical readiness. It’s most importantly about the unit: Does the unit work effectively together? Is there a bond of mutual respect and trust?
One of the most welcome results of this past week is that our transgender service members have heard the same message loud and clear from their peers and from those higher up the chain of command: We value you, and we have your back. Noncommissioned officers are going to their commanders to ensure that their trans soldiers are protected. Commanders are pulling people together to say, “Business as usual. We have each other’s backs.” Troops are saying to trans service members, “You deserve to be here. If you go, I go.” The military ethic of standing together was exemplified in the communication from the Commandant of the Coast Guard, pledging he “will not break faith” with his transgender Coast Guardsmen.
According to surveys by the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people serve in the Armed Forces at twice the rate of other Americans. Meanwhile, the cost of training an individual service member is many times higher than any health care they will receive over their lives. Today, trans service members are performing crucial functions throughout the military and their teammates and superior officers value them. What will it cost to replace that human capital? The argument that this is about money is not credible.
When we think of that small fraction of Americans who have been willing to raise their right hands and swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution — who have offered to put their lives on the line, and proven they have the ability and character to serve — how do we deny them?
Never in our history has a commander-in-chief said to an entire class of trained military service members: I don’t care what you’ve done, I don’t care what lives you’ve saved or what missions you accomplished, I don’t care if we already decided you could serve, you are now no longer welcome to wear this uniform.
Now is not the time to set that awful precedent. We owe our transgender service members the same debt of gratitude we owe to every service member, and for the sake of military readiness, we must allow them to continue serving the country.
Image: U.S. Department of Defense