On Friday evening, when governments traditionally issue news they want to bury, President Donald Trump issued a memorandum instructing the secretaries of defense and homeland security to restrict service by transgender people in the US military. The document formalizes the discriminatory ban that Trump unexpectedly announced in a series of tweets last month, turning a pointless, bigoted idea into official US policy.
The announcement marks an abrupt reversal of recent developments in the military. Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Defense commissioned a study to assess the likely costs and impact of transgender military service. After concluding these would be minimal, the Pentagon permitted transgender troops to serve openly and receive transition-related healthcare in the summer of 2016; it planned to allow new transgender recruits to join the military this summer.
The Trump policy change met with broad and intense opposition. Senators from both parties denounced the action and defended transgender veterans, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff pledged that military leadership would treat transgender people with respect, and would not make any moves to change their policy until formally instructed otherwise, and public opinion polls showed widespread support for transgender service.
The formal order is only slightly less harsh than the ban floated on Twitter. It orders the secretary of defense to plan to restore the ban on transgender service and halts funding for transition-related healthcare unless necessary to protect the health of a service member who has already begun to transition. It extends the ban on new transgender recruits until the secretary of defense recommends that it should be lifted and the president agrees. It doesn’t detail how transgender people now in the military will be dealt with, leaving that to the secretary of defense.
The provisions will take effect on March 23, 2018. So thousands of transgender service members – some in active combat – are left in limbo, unsure whether they’ll be able to keep the jobs, healthcare, and benefits that their fellow troops take for granted. Ejecting capable, qualified individuals from military service solely because of who they are isn’t just discriminatory, it’s arbitrary and cruel. Congressional leadership should turn their condemnation into action and stop this abhorrent policy from taking effect.