The U.S. military can be a quietly progressive institution — and we need all the able-bodied fighters we can get.
On July 26, 2017 — coincidentally the same day 69 years ago that the military was officially desegregated — Donald Trump shocked America by tweeting about his decision to reverse a year-old policy that allowed transgender people to serve, citing “tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
Sheri Swokowski, an advocate for transgender rights and a former U.S. Army colonel, recalls Trump’s tweets as confusing. “When I woke up and found what 45 had done, I really wasn’t sure what it meant. I know the military well enough to know that three tweets does not a policy make,” she says.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]The president just got tired of the arguments, so he just published his tweet.[/quote]
On Thursday, however, the White House got a little closer to turning Trump’s impulses into policy with a memo to the Pentagon with detailed guidelines for rejecting transgender people. It’s a troubling move, especially for transgender veterans like Swokowski, who came out as a transgender woman in 2006 while teaching at the U.S. Army Force Management School and was asked to leave her post following her transition.
“It was extremely disappointing to think that our so-called commander in chief would turn his back on as many as 15,000 folks serving in uniform just because they’re members of a minority group.”
Brenda S. "Sue" Felton. Image courtesy of Felton.
Brenda S. "Sue" Fulton, who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1980, agrees. “We’ve had people openly serving for over a year, and virtually all of them have heard nothing but words of support from the people they serve with,” she says.
The first openly gay person to serve on West Point’s Board of Visitors, Fulton thinks this policy would be harmful to everyone, not only transgender people.
“When these tweets came out, all the messages from service members were that this is wrong and we want you to know we have your back … . You’re disrupting the unit at a point when the world has become a more dangerous place. We can’t disrupt our military pointlessly at a time when we need them to be ready for some pretty significant challenges,” she says.
Though Trump’s tweets appeared to have come out of nowhere, Fulton says the issue originated with a right wing member of Congress, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Missouri). Hartzler proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit any funds to be spent on health care for transgender people serving in the military.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis intervened with calls to members of Congress, requesting them not to pass the amendment because in general the Pentagon believes they are best equipped to make decisions regarding military personal.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]There’s zero evidence that a transgender person would be more likely to join military to pay for their surgery.[/quote]
“As we understand it, the conservative members of Congress appealed to Vice President Pence, who appealed to the president, to help with this. Also, there were arguments in the White House and concerns, but the president just got tired of the arguments, so he just published his tweet,” Fulton explains.
Yet the pool of Americans willing and qualified to serve has been shrinking over time; due to obesity and other factors, it’s harder than ever to recruit high-quality talent, she says.
“That’s why we’ve had three secretaries of defense say if you are qualified to serve, you should be allowed to serve. Which is a principle that over time our senior military officers have also adopted because they’ve seen it work within the force,” she says.
While the military may soon not be an option for transgender people, U.S. employers are becoming more progressive, adding transgender benefits to their health care plans. According to a report in 2013 from the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, there have been no significant increases in employer costs for transgender employees.
To Fulton, this suggests that the notion that someone would sign up for military service to get their transition paid for simply doesn’t make sense. “Why would you go into the Marine Corps when Walgreens would pay for your surgery?” Fulton says.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Our military is the best fighting force in the history of this planet because of all of these changes, not despite them.[/quote]
“People go into the military for many reasons, they join for health care, college education, to learn a skill, and we find that most often with our folks, they join to serve their country. There’s zero evidence that a transgender person would be more likely to join military to pay for their surgery than any other American would join the military,” she says.
Swokowski adds that although she acknowledges Trump’s position as president, “I don’t think he has a very good grasp of what it means to be an American. I think he maybe has a grasp of what it means to be a businessman in America.” To her, turning the military into a less accepting institution cuts violates its very spirit.
“It was 1948 when the military allowed women to serve, and women were equal and got equal pay to their male counterparts – 16 years ahead of the Civil Rights Act. Then the appeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ then lifting the ban or changing policy on transgender people serving — our military is the best fighting force in the history of this planet because of all of these changes, not despite them. Military has been on the cutting edge of societal changes and even ahead of the rest of the country,” Swokowski says.