Transgender Military Members At Risk Of Harassment Under Trump, Says Former Army Secretary

"And here the commander-in-chief is essentially saying it’s okay to discriminate against this group of people."

During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals. But with his directive Friday banning transgender people from serving openly in the military, the president rolled back progress that was already underway during President Barack Obama’s administration. A group of civil rights organizations announced Monday that it was suing Trump’s administration over the new policy.

Eric Fanning served as Army secretary at the end of Obama’s term, and was part of the effort to transition the military to full equality for transgender individuals. Fanning was also the first openly gay person to serve in the position. He is now on the board at the Center for a New American Security.

On Monday, Fanning spoke to HuffPost about his views on Trump’s ban, arguing that there is no basis to the president’s claim that transgender service members hurt readiness and cohesion. (The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

So, first, can I just get your general reaction to what Trump is doing?

It’s hard to distill that. My general reaction is that this is unprecedented. Not just the way he has gone about announcing this via tweet, but the idea that we would just say to a group of people who’ve been told they can serve openly, “never mind,” after they’ve identified themselves. We’ve never done that before.

Over time, we have found ways to increase opportunities for service. You know, President Harry Truman integrating the military in the 1940s, women in combat roles, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal. Never have we gone back and changed the policy to tell people who are serving, meeting your standards, in your jobs for which they’re trained, that there’s not a future for them.

Can you imagine if you had been secretary of the Army and you had seen a tweet from the commander-in-chief announcing this policy?

No. I suppose everything that was unimaginable before is happening now. Start with the tweet. He said that it’s burdensome and disruptive. I am offended that a commander-in-chief would refer to thousands of people serving in uniform under his command as a burden. And the disruption is him changing this policy, especially over a tweet. It’s sowed so much confusion across the force.

Then, a week later, he makes the statement that this is complicated and confusing, so he’s doing the military a favor. The military does complicated and confusing things all the time, and does it really well. And we spent a year analyzing, debating, discussing, deciding what to do with this policy because we wanted to do it in the most professional way possible.

He said the military cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs of gender reassignment surgery. Can you comment on that and whether that would be burdensome?

I look to the RAND Corp. RAND did two studies on that. They’re an incredibly credible organization. Their estimate was that it would cost $2.5 million to $8.5 million, something in that range, which is essentially one one-thousandth of a point of a percent of military medical spending ― 0.0001 percent of military spending. We spend $40 million a year on Viagra. Eighty million dollars total on erectile dysfunction issues. And RAND’s estimate is as low as $2.4 million a year.

And I believe they came up with that estimate before the accession policy was set that says for a transgender American to join the military, they have to be stable in the target gender for 18 months. So, people aren’t able to join just to get transition-related medical care.

On May 18, 2016, Eric Fanning (right) was sworn in as the secretary of the Army by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
On May 18, 2016, Eric Fanning (right) was sworn in as the secretary of the Army by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

You were helping to oversee the transition under Obama. Was there resistance in the Army to allowing transgender service members to serve openly?

The Army is an enormous institution. So you’re going to find all different viewpoints on any given issue. Certainly there was resistance. Some people just don’t approve. But most of it in the debate was really ― it was just questions, wanting to know, how does this impact readiness? How many soldiers are not going to be deployable because of medical care that they’re receiving?

And RAND’s analysis ― again, before the accession policy was set with the 18-month stability clause ― was that it would be as low as 29 to as high as 129 service members a year that would require medical, surgical treatment for transitioning. I suspect that number’s going to be lower, again, because of the 18-month requirement for stability in the target gender. And there aren’t ongoing medical needs that impact deployability.

The Trump administration has said it’s willing to let current transgender individuals serving in the military continue to serve. What are your thoughts on that? Does that undercut the argument that allowing more transgender people to serve will undercut readiness?

I suspect that the lawyers just couldn’t figure out how to make work the idea of discharging people who are already serving and have been told they could serve openly. That’s my guess what happened behind the scenes.

I think there are a number of things that undercut the argument that this negatively impacts readiness. And that’s just one of them, if you’re allowing people to continue serving. They want to find ways to drum them out. That’s clear.

Are you worried that the Trump directive ― even if they do allow transgender people to continue serving who are already there ― do you worry that the directive will have an impact on them? Such as an uptick in harassment or anything like that?

I do worry about that. The military is a very professional organization. It’s also a very young organization. And here the commander-in-chief is essentially saying it’s okay to discriminate against this group of people. So I worry about how that message is being received, particularly by young people in uniform. And I worry about the environment that creates for open trans service members.

Anything else?

It’s essentially the last discriminatory practice in the military. Gays and lesbians are allowed to serve openly and are fully integrated. All combat positions are open to women. All that should matter is meeting the requirements.

And there are thousands of transgender service members who did meet the requirements. They are trained, and they are doing their jobs. The RAND estimate ― to suggest that those numbers would have an impact on readiness is really hard to substantiate.

What were your thoughts when Tennessee state Sen. Mark Green was nominated as Army secretary and it came out that he had made all these, mostly anti-transgender comments? (Green withdrew from consideration in May, after considerable criticism over his past comments.)

I think that diversity is one of the strengths of our force, and an important part of that force is inclusion. I think it’s hard to have a leader of such a diverse a force who has any open prejudices against people who are serving, whether it be LGBT, whether it be Muslim, whatever it is. The force is large, and it represents and reflects society and all its diversity, which is a positive thing. A leader of an organization like that should respect that diversity.

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