A photo of people protesting for trans rights outside of the White House

Ted Eytan/CC 2.0


Ted Eytan/CC 2.0

The Trump Assault on Trans Rights Is the Canary in the Coalmine

In a bigoted campaign launched with tweets, this administration has confirmed our worst fears about its anti-LGBTQ plans. How far can this go?

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It seems only fitting somehow that Donald Trump announced one of his most appalling presidential decisions thus far on Twitter. In a threetweet announcement (can someone please teach the president of the United States how to create a Twitter thread already?), Trump banned transgender people from serving in the military:


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


(All grammatical errors, of course, in the original).

There are no hard and fast numbers as to how many people got their lives turned upside down by this, as the Department of Defense doesn’t maintain numbers of trans people who are serving or have served. One study estimates roughly 15,000, while another study came in much lower, with a possible range of 1,320 to 6,630 active duty transgender individuals. But there’s no number small enough to make this okay.

Like so much else of what Trump does, this move directly and completely undoes an initiative from the Obama era, where just last year the Department of Defense ended the ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. Obama’s DOD announcement, of course, took care to explain who had been consulted (medical experts, transgender servicemembers, Armed Services leadership, outside advocacy groups, RAND, and more), required creation of a training handbook, and explained what sort of health care and medical guidance was to be provided.

It is the last, of course, that has been particularly irksome to conservatives, because Obama’s policies required the military health system to cover gender transition services. Trump even went to far as to pretend that the “tremendous medical costs” helped drive his bigoted decision. There’s just one problem with that: The cost of providing medical care to transgender troops actually isn’t all that expensive.

Obama’s DOD commissioned a study from RAND to determine the implications, including cost, of allowing trans people serve openly and providing for their medical care. You will be unsurprised to learn that at the top of the scale, it might run the military $8.4 million per year out of a $6.2 billion yearly budget—a relatively low cost because gender transition surgery is much rarer in real life than in the fevered imagination of conservatives. The RAND report estimated a range of 25 to 130 transition-related surgeries per year. That isn’t going to break the bank. Viagra, on the other hand, runs the military a cool $41.6 million per year. Guess we know what really matters to Trump.

There’s also no evidence at all that having transgender service members in any way impacts unit cohesion, which is maybe? (who can say, really?) what Trump meant by “disruption” in his tweetstorm. How can we know that it has no negative effect, if the ban on transgender individuals openly serving was only recently lifted? Because, the RAND study found, 18 other countries, including Israel and the United Kingdom, already let transgender people serve and have seen no real impact on unit cohesion or readiness.

Initially, it looked like the Trump administration was proceeding with some level of restraint and regularity on this matter. Bigoted restraint and regularity, to be sure, but at least they were following some sort of process. On June 30, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delayed implementation of the Obama-era policies for six months so that military chiefs could review whether it would affect the “readiness or lethality” of the force. That study time also, notably, didn’t affect anyone who was already serving. But then Trump took to Twitter three weeks later to nuke any presumption that this would proceed in a normal fashion. Where Obama carefully commissioned studies to determine impact, implications, and cost, Trump, on the other hand, didn’t even get around to telling the Pentagon about his bigoted decision before he popped off on Twitter.

This is not how policy is supposed to be made. This is not how policy is supposed to be announced. This is not how America is supposed to work. Trump can undo Obama’s policies, but not just by tweeting. He actually has to issue an executive order. Trump’s own Joint Chiefs chair, General Joseph Dunford, has said the policy won’t be modified until Trump transmits his order to the Secretary of Defense and then the Secretary has to issue an implementation plan.

Plans aren’t really Trump’s strong suit, however. Trump also offered no plan that anyone is aware of to address the issue of transgender people who are already serving. People may be deployed overseas—does Trump hunt them down and drag them back? People may be reaching the end of their enlistment—will they be dishonorably discharged? While Obama’s policies were to be phased in gradually, and we hadn’t yet hit the point where all aspects of the policy were fully in place, the one thing that went into effect right away last year was a ban on discharging trans soldiers. It is very possible that individuals that came out as transgender after that ban went into effect could sue over being forcibly discharged, as they could argue that they relied upon the government’s 2016 promise they could serve.

Trans people are, of course, the canaries in the godawful coal mine we now live in. The Trump administration is not going to be content simply discriminating against trans individuals in the military. Gay and lesbian soldiers will likely be next, if Mike Pence has his way, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see a ban on women serving in combat roles come down the pike very soon. Defense Secretary Mattis has already made clear he doesn’t think women are well-suited for combat because they won’t be good at what he called “intimate killing” and that he saw letting women serve in combat was a “progressive agenda” that pushed social change on the military.

And it’s not just the military we should be worried about. LGBTQ rights in the workplace are under attack too. AG Sessions is more than sympathetic to the view that “religious freedom” is harmed by court rulings that protect LGBTQ people, including addressing the Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Policy Law Center designated as an anti-LGBT hate group. Under Sessions, the DOJ just filed a brief arguing that Title VII, a federal civil rights law, doesn’t protect employees who are the victims of of workplace anti-LGBT bias.

While same-sex marriage remains intact for now, the Texas Supreme Court started chipping away at the rights and privileges that accompany marriage. In a recent case, that court unanimously held that two anti-gay activists should be allowed to continue their court case arguing that the city of Houston cannot extend benefits to same-sex spouses.

The tiniest of silver linings here is that Trump probably expected all conservatives to line up joyfully to support this latest bit of awful. And the social conservatives like creepy Steve Bannon and ghoulish Mike Pence are indeed overjoyed. But when someone as conservative and military-fetishizing as Orrin Hatch (!!) issues a statement that you’re wrong to discriminate against transgender people serving in the military, you’re as far on the wrong side of history as it is possible to be.


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