President Trump tweeted in late July that the military would not “accept or allow” transgender service members. The news blindsided transgender members of the U.S. military deployed in hotspots and active war zones around the world.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and chaos that’s been injected into the system. It’s a national security issue, we need [our service members] focused and doing their jobs. Not afraid of losing them,” says Matt Thorn, executive director for Outserve-SLDN, the nation’s largest advocacy group for gay and transgender service members.
To be clear, nothing has been put into law yet. Politico obtained a message from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, that said there will be no changes in how the military deals with transgender service members, “until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidance.”
Until then, recent history, advocates and elected officials collectively offer precedent for protecting LGBTQ rights within the military.
Outserve’s fight for LGBTQ rights in the military
OutServe began as a secret Facebook group during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” days when gay men and women could be discharged from the military for their sexual orientation. Since connecting with more than 4,000 service members, the group merged with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network to form OutServe-SLDN, an influential lobbying force fighting for civil rights within the armed forces for LGBTQ service members.
The organization’s efforts have paid off. In 2011 the military (with the support of the U.S. Senate) repealed its historic anti-LGBT “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. And OutServe-SLDN’s founder, Josh Seefried, was contacted by Pentagon officials to help shape future policy.
In 2012, a report issued by the Palm Center, an independent research institute on public policy, found that a year after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” was repealed, there was no change in service members’ abilities to complete their missions or work — putting conservatives at ease on how the change in policy would affect day-to-day duties.
Then two years ago, the Senate nominated Eric Fanning, who is openly gay, to his former post as Army secretary under President Barack Obama.
The ban for transgender service members was lifted in June 2016, removing the last barrier of service for members of the LGBTQ community. The decision came after a study found that the cost to pay for transgender service members’ gender reassignment and medication would cost less than one percent of the entire military budget, according to a RAND Corporation report that was conducted while the ban was still in place.
In July 2017, OutServe-SLDN worked with the American Military Partner Association against the Hartzler Amendment, which cut government funding for transition surgeries and hormone therapy treatments for transgender service members. The amendment failed 214-209.
As a result of President Trump’s announcement, OutServe-SLDN is preparing for legal battles to help protect transgender military members currently serving and to fight any regulation that might come from the White House. “If it comes to it, we’re prepared to go to court if he puts anything on paper,” says Thorn.
Bipartisan support for LGBTQ service members
Working in tandem, policy makers from both sides of the aisle are also standing up for LGBTQ rights. Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who lifted the transgender ban last year, said Trump’s decision would, “send the wrong signal to a younger generation thinking about military service.”
Sen. John McCain, who has recently gained renewed fame (thanks to his speech on bipartisanship), said in a statement, “We should all be guided by the principle that any American who wants to serve our country and is able to meet the standards should have the opportunity to do so — and should be treated as the patriots they are.” Though, he reserved his opinion on whether transgender service members would serve until medical studies were done.
And other members of Congress have returned fire on Twitter. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah posted a statement on the social platform that said, “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.” Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio wrote, “All who serve in our military deserve our gratitude [and] respect. We should not turn away people who are willing [and] able to serve this country.”