On July 26, President Trump announced via a series of tweets that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” This was done in order to prevent incurring “tremendous medical costs” as well as avoiding the “disruption” that transgender service members would cause. It was also stated that this action had been taken after “consultation with my Generals and military experts”.
Bipartisan criticism followed the announcement, including from Republican senators Orrin Hatch and John McCain. Criticism focused not only on the ban itself, but also the use of Twitter as a means of disseminating official orders. Nevertheless, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that all service members would continue to be treated with respect and the military’s current policies on transgender individuals will remain in effect until further guidance on implementation is issued through the chain of command.
The Chain of Events
Working backwards, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was on vacation in Washington state at the time of the announcement. It was reported in the New York Times that he had received word of the ban one day in advance. Stars and Stripes reported that General Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the Army, received word of the ban when he saw it on the news. CNN Politics went further and reported that none of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been informed of the ban in advance of the president’s announcement.
Addressing the “disruption” that transgender service members are likely to cause, the president’s tweets seem to ignore the fact that transgender individuals have been serving openly since 2016, when their service was explicitly permitted under the tenure of then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. According to the Department of Defense’s “fact sheet”, all transgender service members are officially allowed to serve openly. It is currently estimated that about 250 service members across all branches are in the process of transitioning to their preferred gender.
In spite of this, the military has not yet begun to accept recruits who have been identified by medical practitioners as transgender. Guidance created in 2016 indicated that the services would eventually accept transgender recruits, but only after they had been “stable in their preferred gender for at least 18 months, as certified by a doctor”. This was due to begin on July 1 2017, but Secretary Mattis implemented a six-month extension to continue reviewing the policy and any possible issues associated with it, pushing the date for accepting recruits back to December 1 2017.
How many transgender troops in the US Army and how much do they cost?
Different studies have been carried out over the last several years to determine the total number of transgender individuals present in the armed forces and these have reached different conclusions. The most recent was a Pentagon-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation in 2016, which concluded that the number was between 1,320 and 6,630 out of a total of 1.3 million service members across all branches, with the most likely number sitting at around 3,960 personnel.
The New York Times chose to interpret this number as being between 2,000 to 11,000 on active duty alone while the Washington Post said that RAND estimated 11,000 total members across both active and reserve components. The Economist chose to use the figure 15,500, based on a study conducted by the Williams Institute in 2014 – despite the fact that this particular number was dismissed as too high by the RAND Corporation’s own study two years later, as it relied solely on transgender population estimates from Massachusetts and California, which are unlikely to be representative of the country as a whole. The exact number, as admitted by both studies, shall remain unknown until more data becomes available.
Finally, excessive medical costs were cited as a reason to prohibit transgender citizens from joining the military. The same RAND Corporation study cited above estimated that healthcare costs would be between $2.4 and $8.4 million annually, something which the New York Times points out would mean a 0.04% to 0.13% spending increase within the Department of Defense’s budget. Furthermore, the RAND study also estimated that only 29 to 129 service members would seek transition-related medical care in any given year, making use of data available through private health insurers.
The real reason behind the ban
So if prompting by service chiefs, “disruption,” and medical costs were not the cause of the sudden order-by-Twitter, what was? The Economist, the Washington Post, and New York Times all say it had to do with a vote in Congress on security spending. The New York Times reported that a $790 billion defence and security spending package was threatened because it included funding for gender transition and hormone therapy, something that was viewed as an unnecessary expenditure by a number of lawmakers.
The Washington Post cited Representative Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), who contacted both Defense Secretary Mattis and the White House before filing an amendment to the defense spending bill in mid-July to prohibit these treatments being included. Also included in the bill was $1.6 billion earmarked for the building of the security wall with Mexico, one of President Trump’s signature campaign promises, which is the most likely reason for his intervention.
So what does this mean? Despite the blustering rhetoric, almost certainly nothing. President Trump’s tweets forbidding otherwise fit transgender citizens from serving in the armed forces are meaningless until he issues implementation guidance to the Secretary of Defense, and through the Secretary to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Representative Hartzler’s amendment stripping funding for gender transition-related medical treatment was unanimously voted against by all House Democrats, while no fewer than 24 Republicans also voted against the amendment.
There has been little news on the subject in the days following the tweets, and the president’s prohibition has nowhere near unanimous support. A Reuters poll conducted from 26-28 July indicated 58% of Americans believe otherwise capable transgender individuals should be permitted to serve in the military. This move was apparently made without significant consultation with the various service chiefs or the Secretary of Defense and will be impossible to implement without additional guidance from President Trump.
Without time, thought, and political capital (none of which the White House appears to be willing to invest in the ban, given the recent silence), institutional inertia is liable to win out and current policies will remain in effect, thus allowing transgender members of the military to continue serving and transgender recruits to eventually enlist.