In a series of tweets this morning, President Donald Trump announced that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military “in any capacity.”
Citing consultations with his generals and military experts, the president cited the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” that allowing them to serve would entail. The Pentagon has reportedly said it was unaware of Trump’s decision to shift policy.
Trump’s announcement comes just two years after President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, Ashton Carter, said transgender members would be allowed to serve openly for the first time in American history. Previously, transgender people were blocked from visible service due to the military viewing gender dysphoria as a mental condition. About a year later, a study Carter commissioned through the RAND corporation found that any impact of transgender people openly serving would likely be small. The report estimated additional health care costs would range between $2.9 million and $4.2 million a year and that only 10 to 130 active service members would have reduced deployability. “This amount is negligible relative to the 102,500 non-deployable soldiers in the Army alone in 2015, 50,000 of them in the active component,” the study reported. That led Carter to state officially in June 2016, “Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly. They can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.”
The opportunity for new, openly transgender recruits to enroll in the military was to begin this month, but in June, Defense Secretary James Mattis asked for an additional six months to review the nascent policy. All of that went out the window this morning.
If they reverse the transgender policy, you have to wonder, What is coming down the pipe next?
The president has been facing pressure from religious and other conservatives groups like the Family Research Council, which pegged the costs of health care for transgender people in the military in the next 10 years as anywhere between $1.9 and $3.7 billion dollars, to reverse the Obama-era guidelines. More recently, the Family Research Council circulated a tone-deaf, controversial meme questioning whether taxpayer money should fund sex reassignment surgery. The meme places an image of Chelsea Manning side-by-side with a military aircraft and reads, “Which one do you want our military to be spending your tax dollars on - transgender surgeries or equipment?” The Council created the meme in response to the House of Representatives voting on an amendment to block the Department of Defense from funding sex reassignment surgeries for military personnel. House Republicans failed to get enough votes, however, with 24 conservatives breaking from their bloc.
In order to gauge the reaction to the news, Playboy Contributing Writer Luke O'Neil spoke with an active duty Army captain, who asked to remain anonymous, about how Trump’s tweets will be received in his company and throughout the military. The captain has been in the military for 13 years, both in medical aid service and as a medical operations officer for a combat brigade.
Ashton Carter’s commissioned report from May 2016 estimated 2,450 active-duty members were transgender. Other estimates show that between 5,000 and 15,000 transgender people serve in the military, either actively or on reserve. What would it do to morale to suddenly kick them out?
It wouldn’t be good. It would not be good. I don’t have any in my unit, but we’re talking about an organization that already has trouble with retention. A big problem the Army has is recruiting. When I was in a combat brigade, one of the things I did was track folks’ physical profiles. Basically, soldiers had some injury and they would be retired because they’re unable to get healthy again in time. The Army spends a lot of time and money on folks who come in physically unable to do stuff. So it doesn’t make sense to take 7,000 folks who are actively able to serve and cut them out.
If they were to reverse the transgender policy, I think you’d have to start to wonder, What is coming down the pipe next, in terms of homosexual people openly serving, because that was one of the Obama-era changes as well. [Editor’s note: President Obama reversed the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly in 2011.] I do have a number of gay and lesbian soldiers in my unit. They’re good soldiers and it’s not an issue. A few years ago people said letting gays and lesbians serve openly would destroy morale and make having a cohesive unit impossible. That’s not a thing now. Even the conservative folks in my unit who struggled with the idea now completely accept that we have gay and lesbian troops—that they’re their peers and that there’s no problem.
What did you think of this news from the president this morning?
As soon as you make some headway, it’s going to be like whiplash, and we’re going to build back every stigma we invested time in breaking down.
Are you critical of the president’s thinking here?
I don’t understand what Trump thinks he’s getting at. I get that it’s a red-meat issue, but nobody whom I’ve talked to in the military has said, “I wish they would just get rid of this transgender thing.” Of everything that takes up time for me as a commander, this is not one of them.
What do you expect will happen next?
The Army is very much a bureaucracy, so any commander, even within their own purview, has a limited amount of leeway to change established policy. The way we say it is you can always add to what the higher-level established policy is, but you can never take away from it. Until an actual directive is published from the Department of Defense or headquarters at the Department of the Army, we’ll continue with the actual guidance we have.
What’s your experience so far with dealing with the policy set in place by the Obama administration?
I’ve gotten to see the machinations of how they built the current policy and how we’ve ended up distributing it down into training at the troop level. From the beginning, if a solider identities himself or herself as transgender and says “I need reassignment,” [I’ve seen] the pipeline the Army has in terms of the waypoints they meet before they are recognized in the military system by their preferred gender. At the end point of that, we go and train our soldiers—the general population—and say, Look, you’re going to start seeing transgender soldiers in our ranks, folks that will be going through the process. We need you to understand that they are every bit as much as soldiers and part of the team as anyone you deal with.
Given the fact that we’re often expected to go out and deploy into austere environments, they’re going to be in close quarters. We have to make sure they’re prepared to accept and work and live with these folks that they otherwise might not have been comfortable with.
Did you receive actual directives that spelled out how to handle the new policy?
There was written material to study, but there wasn’t a whole lot of dedicated stuff. They passed us the literature that laid out the specific policy language, showed us the overview and gave us some vignettes to look at and consider how that would impact us. One of the questions you’re asked is, if you have a solider in one of your platoons who is requesting to be moved to a different part of the organization because a transgender solider is now in his or her platoon and they don’t want to work with that person, do you grant them that move?
Is there a correct answer?
The correct answer has to be no. Because—this is my editorialization—what if every other person says it? That’s not embracing the spirit that we’re all soldiers. We’re trying to teach them this person is no different than you, even if there’s one thing about them you aren’t comfortable with.
When did you start implementing guidance on the new policy to your command? Within the last 3 months. I was at a training when I met a transgender officer last September. The training fully laid out…there’s an overall misunderstanding of who a transgender person is. It’s the same with the bathroom scares. I don’t know if people think there’s going to be an abuse of the system—some person declares one day they’re male and then female the next day—but the way we address it is that anybody who would take advantage of a fellow soldier has a set of different problems.
This is not embracing the spirit that we’re all soldiers.
Have you witnessed any pushback?
There was a certain amount of—not pushback, because this is coming from the commander—but more like, it’s everybody’s job to accept the rules. Some of them were like “I don’t understand why, I don’t get it, I don’t want to work with folks like this.”
I have a senior enlisted solider who has served for 20 years. You’d expect him to be a little more conservative, but he’s a true professional. So when we said, “This is now the line,” he’s going to push that line. You lay the groundwork. You say, “Look, every solider is part of our family, they’re all our bothers and sisters, and we don’t look at them with suspicious when they tell us something like this, we are empathetic and say I want to help you.”
Is there any overlap with how the topic of transgender people openly serving relates to other issues within the ranks?
It ties in a lot with other themes within the military. Sexual assault is a big one. The Army does to try to prevent sexual assault, up to and including basic things like having male and female soldiers sleep in separate quarters. Then you talk to female officers, who say all that does is segregate us. And then you still have, in corners of the military, a sexist attitude about what women can do as well.
So we’re trying to make strides on bringing women into the fold completely. If we can roll accepting transgender soldiers in the same way—there’s no male soldiers or female soldiers, no cis soldiers or transgender soldiers. It’s all one force, it’s all green.
Would you say your command, and the military in general, still very much leans right?
It’s hard to say. I’ve changed my status in the decade-plus I’ve been in, but there are definitely still conservative-leaning folks here. You’re going to find them more in combat branches, infantry, artillery and combat aviation. These guys are still very much of the big-time jock mindset. But a lot of younger folks, especially as a support officer, are differently minded. My peers who have been officers for four to five years don’t lean that way. There is a generational change. My dad was an officer and he’s conservative, but a lot of guys I did ROTC with are way more open-minded.
Moving forward, is there a feeling of increased anxiety about potential further changes within the military under this administration?
It’s hard to gauge. My company is 80 percent guys and gals 25 years old and younger, so they have a lot of verve still. But there is a lot of uncertainty, on the command side, looking at what we’re going to be doing for the next six to 12 months.
*Related: Read Playboy Chief Creative Office Cooper Hefner’s op-ed on how President Donald Trump’s announcement is an attack on LGBT people’s right to identity.