On the morning of July 26, President Donald Trump turned out a triptych of tweets taking a policy position banning transgender people from serving openly in the U.S. military. The rationale for his position emphasized the prohibitive “costs” and “readiness” associated with transgender service. In a press briefing later that same day, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added “unit cohesion” as a third reason for rejecting open transgender service.

On June 30, 2016 Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted the ban prohibiting uniformed transgender people from serving in the U.S. armed forces. Accessions of new transgender service members had been scheduled to be implemented on July 1, 2017.

Presumably the Pentagon and Defense Secretary James Mattis favored kicking that proverbial can down the road when they called for a six month review of the accessions portion of the policy—with a new December 2017 deadline. The trifecta tweet caught military and civilian leaders by surprise as it came one month into the six-month review of a major reversal of the transgender military service policy put forth by the Obama administration.

Between July of last year and this summer, the Department of Defense (DoD) made noteworthy steps toward inclusion. One example is the publication of the Transgender Service in the U.S. Military: An Implementation Handbook—a DoD resource for military leaders to manage trans and cisgender talent.

On a positive note, Trump’s tweets appear to have increased curiosity and shine a brighter than normal spotlight on trans issues in the military. After all, the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy took 17 years (1993 to 2010), a time during which a generation of Americans and the U.S. military grew accustomed to gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. The learning and experience curve is much sharper for familiarity with transgender people. But the past can be prologue especially when it comes to minority group experiences. 

In a new book released this month, Inclusion in the American Military: A Force for Diversity, sociologist Judith Rosenstein at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., provides a primer on transgender and the military. She begins with some rich background on what transgender means—in particular, first differentiating between sex, gender, gender identity, and sexuality—four features that most people inappropriately commingle. Distinguishing these four social elements allows for better understanding between the groups making up the LGBTQ acronym (or QUILTBAG for an even broader rainbow of differentiation—queer, undecided, intersex, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, asexual, and gay). Next, she smartly points out that the “T” of transgender is an umbrella term covering a range of gender orientations on a spectrum. Gender identities include agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, non-binary, transsexual, and pan-gender, among others.

Dr. Rosenstein further highlights the rich social history of transgender people and then drills down to the American military. In terms of contentious areas associated with transgender people in the military, she confirms the RAND study that is being referenced by the popular press—that readiness and costs to the military would have a minimal impact.

Finally, she offers recommendations to leaders gleaned from social science studies of transgender people in the workplace that include transparent communication while insuring privacy and confidentiality, collaboration with the transgender person, and modeling behavior including appropriate uses of language—all of which reflect the guidance outlined in the DoD Handbook—to include treating everyone with respect and being guided by the values of the organization.

In terms of medical costs, ballpark estimates hold that male-to-female or female-to-male sexual reassignment surgery runs at approximately $50,000. First, it is important to understand that people enlist in the American military for a range of reasons from intangibles such as patriotism to tangibles including earning money for college.

Conscription ended in 1973. The military uses a business model to recruit and retain service members today. Both concrete and symbolic incentives are exchanged for their service. Without them, the all-volunteer force would fail. The military is just as much a job as a calling. In this sense, there is little philosophical difference between someone enlisting for humanitarian, patriotic, educational, and/or medical benefits—all motivations lead to serving but for different reasons.

Knowing that transgender is an umbrella term, only a fraction of transgender troops are likely to seek medical intervention. Add to this the power of the military socialization process, transgender service members with medical needs, not unlike their cisgender peers, are likely to strategically plan any medical treatments around, not during, their training and deployments. Selfless service is a prized organization value in the military that service members embrace. We interviewed cadets and officers in focus groups about the military financially covering any transgender surgeries. Initially, most said any payments of medical transitioning for a transgender soldier should not be covered by the tax payers—it is elective surgery. But after some discussion, many had second thoughts. They quickly noted that laser eye surgery, male vasectomies, Viagra and Cialis prescriptions, breast augmentation, and a host of other medical procedures are elective as well. They questioned their positions. And soon challenged their assumptions, acknowledging that such medical and mental procedures could help people reach their fullest potential and be better soldiers.

In terms of readiness and disruptions, let’s assess the demographics. There are just under 2.1 million active and reserve service members in the U.S. military. Take the potentially largest number of transgender people serving in the American military—about 15,000—an estimate from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. This is less than 1 percent of the force or about 3.5 transgender troops in a battalion of 490. Again, perhaps none of these troops would be non-deployable, certainly not all of them. We prepare officers and senior NCOs to manage their talent. Service members become non-deployable for a host of reasons: a blown out knee following a weekend of pick-up basketball, a family emergency, drug or alcohol problems, an extreme sunburn, pregnancy, among many other routine problems or health issues.

Lastly, Huckabee Sanders noted unit cohesion as a rationale for prohibiting transgender service. This is a 20th century argument traceable to maintaining racial segregation before 1948, prohibiting women from serving in combat roles, and denying LGB service members from serving openly. Vertical and horizontal cohesion means that service members need to principally bond socially up and down the chain of command and across their small units in order to be effective on the battlefield. The more contemporary focus today is that task cohesion, not social cohesion, is more salient for service members to accomplish their mission.

Moreover, social and behavioral science research shows that diverse teams bring a range of skills, dispositions, and outlooks to bear on a complex problem and are more successful over homogenous teams. Recognizing this, the military has moved to embracing diversity and inclusion in recent years. In this way, excellence comes from recruiting the best people from a broad pool. Necessary talent then emerges to accomplish the range of military missions we require from our military in the 21st century. The U.S. military is great because of diversity and inclusion not in spite of it. Our research has shown no major problems associated with open LGB service one year after the lifting of DADT. Further, other militaries around the world—including some of our closest allies such as Canada, who also have all-volunteer military service, have experienced no problems associated with LGB or transgender service members.

Other uniformed organizations responsible for public service and safety have seen no reduction in cohesion, readiness, disruptions, or costs such as trans firefighters and police officers. Currently, the American military is likely the largest employer of transgender people in the country. Further, research on veterans shows that transgender Americans serve at twice the rate of their cisgender peers. Transgender service seems to be an opportunity here not a distraction. We should be trans-inclusive not transphobic. Others could learn from how the military manages its transgender talent pool. Senior leadership at the Pentagon is waiting for more formal guidance regarding transgender service members from the White House. But the Commander-in-Chief appears intent on prohibition. However, President Trump has shown a great deal of admiration and confidence in our senior military leaders. Those same leaders can manage, lead, train, and inspire trans and cisgender troops in their ranks and institute appropriate adjustments should ongoing research identify any issues, as we have done with other minority groups in the ranks.


Relevant Sources

Belkin, Aaron, Morten G. Ender, Nathaniel Frank, Stacie Furia, George R. Lucas, Gary Packard, Steven M. Samuels, Tammy S. Schultz, and David R. Segal. (2013). “Readiness and DADT Repeal: Has the New Policy of Open Service Undermined the Military?,” Armed Forces & Society, 39(4):587-601.

Department of Defense (2016). Transgender Service in the U.S. Military: An Implementation Handbook; Washington: Department of Defense.

Ender, Morten G. Diane M. Ryan, Danielle A. Nuszkowski, Emma Sarah Spell, and Charles B. Atkins. (2017). “Dinner and a Conversation: Transgender Integration at West Point and Beyond.” Social Sciences, 6(1).

Okros, Alan and Denise Scott (2014). “Gender Identity in the Canadian Forces: A Review of Possible Impacts on Operational Effectiveness,” Armed Forces & Society, 41(2):243-256. 

Rohall, David E., Morten G. Ender, Michael D. Matthews (editors). (2017). Inclusion in the American Military: A Force for Diversity. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books).

Correction: August 8, 2017 This article has been updated to reflect that lifting the ban against transgender service members serving openly in the military was a policy change initiated, studied, and implemented by the Department of Defense. President Barack Obama supported the change, but he did not initiate it or sign legislation to make it happen. The article has also been updated so that it no longer describes the period between July of last year and this summer as “interim.” 

Image: Getty/Chris Hondros