President Trump made history Wednesday in two ways. First, he became only the second president, after President Barack Obama, to address transgender issues — although in a much different way. While Obama had welcomed transgender men and women into military service, Trump announced that they would be banned.
Second, since President Bill Clinton, we haven’t seen such the highly publicized rebuke by the Joint Chiefs of Staff about a sudden personnel policy change. When Clinton tried to unilaterally open the services to lesbians and gay men, Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rebelled and the issue hit the congressional floor for debate; the result was the policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” This time, the Joint Chiefs made clear that they stand on the side of keeping the services open to all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Transgender people are not new to the Defense Department. We have records that cross-dressers served in the Civil War. Usually these were people who were barred from fighting because they had been born female. Some were what we would now call transgender; others identified as female and only dressed as male so that they could fight. Either way, this is a very old issue.
Here are four questions — and answers — to consider what it looks like today.
Isn’t ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ over?
Yes, it is. But the policy never applied to transgender people. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the final iteration of a long-standing ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military. It was also the longest surviving ban created by the U.S. government to keep lesbians and gay men from federal employment.
Commentators talk about the LGBT community as a single group in recent years. Yet, this mixes up two separate concepts — sexual orientation and gender identity. There’s a difference between the two terms. Transgender people are those who identify with and present as a sex that’s different from the one assigned at birth. Policies that protect “gender identity” and “gender expression” are more comprehensive than ones only protecting “sexual orientation.” They protect transgender people from societal expectations of how they should dress and act.
With the removal of the ban on homosexuality, transgender people, like everyone else, are free to have relationships regardless of sex. But this does not protect them from being discharged for being transgender.
Trump asserted that troops “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” If this declaration sounds familiar, it is because it is grounded in arguments made about the need to retain the ban on homosexuals in the military. Congress heard in the 1993 and 2010 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debates that allowing openly gay people into the ranks would threaten “combat readiness.” Republican presidential hopefuls as recently as the 2016 election argued that the “social experiment” in the military — i.e., gay men and lesbians serving openly — had gone too far.
So is it legal to fire transgender service members?
From 1952 to 1973, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, which was one of the early reasons given for banning and removing lesbian, gay and bisexual service members. That is presently where transgender service members are. “Gender dysphoria,” the medicalized phrase for profound discomfort with living under the sex originally assigned, is still in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder.
Even transgender advocates disagree on whether the condition should still be considered an illness. On one hand, by classifying it as a mental disorder, we are further stigmatizing transgender people in society. But, on the flip side, transgender people cannot begin medical treatment until a disorder is diagnosed. Mental health providers require a diagnosis to continue treating patients.
The Obama administration was slowly removing the ban on transgender military service. It allowed already-enlisted service members to serve openly, while civilian transgender people interested in joining the military are still permanently disqualified from service. This change in policy also provides for medically necessary health-care treatment of service members. The military planned to remove this disqualification earlier in the year, but faced a six-month stay that delayed implementation. As a result, the Trump administration became responsible for ensuring a fully transgender-inclusive military.
Trump’s tweets announcing a ban on transgender service members and the Joint Chiefs’ refusal to change policy until it goes through the proper channels have made it difficult to know what will happen next for service members who have revealed their transgender status since the previous administration’s welcoming policy.
What will happen if Trump’s ban becomes policy?
We may be able to learn something from the history of military policies toward gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. A major overhaul to the already existing ban was overseen in 1950 under Gen. Omar Bradley. This change standardized how people were discharged for homosexual conduct, but enforcement waxed and waned, depending on military needs and current social attitudes. For instance, during the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, few troops were discharged for homosexuality. However, during the AIDS era under President Ronald Reagan, when the U.S. military required a much smaller number of personnel, the number of service members discharged for homosexuality increased sharply.
Individual service members’ fate depended largely on what each one’s commanding officer decided to do. Throughout the ban, many lesbian, gay and bisexual troops opted to take medical discharges in lieu of a “general” or “dishonorable” discharge that stir up questions from future employers.
If the military begins to discharge transgender service members, many may choose to leave under medical discharge as many gay and lesbian troops did — even though anything other than an “honorable” discharge threatens their access to veterans’ benefits.
How does this fit into the national political landscape on LGBT issues?
Trump’s change on transgender issues is part of a broader backlash against gains made by LGBT activists. Transgender advocates are already on the defensive as many conservative, Republican-controlled state legislatures push for measures that would restrict transgender rights. North Carolina drew considerable criticism for its “bathroom bill” requiring people to use restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates last year, but it was not the first state to pass one, and more are under consideration. Just last week at the start of a special legislative session, the Texas Senate passed a similar “bathroom bill.” In just the 2017 legislative session, 16 states are considering similar legislation.
Many of the same states either have passed or are working on Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which expand religious protections to allow owners to refuse service to numerous groups on religious grounds — including businesses that prefer not to serve LGBT people.
Mitchell Sellers is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.