Protecting Privilege: The Ban On Transgender Service Members Isn’t About Efficiency Or Effectiveness

Co-authored with Alesha Doan

When the President announced his ban on transgender service members he asserted two main arguments to justify implementing a trans phobic policy. His first argument was based on the need to eliminate the high cost of healthcare services for trans service members. President Trump’s second argument focused on the effectiveness of our military forces, asserting an unfounded claim that trans service members are a “disruption” and “distraction” to the military. In reality, President Trump simply rolled out a familiar script that has been used to exclude marginalized populations in the military and society writ large.

President Trump’s first argument has been roundly criticized by a number of outlets. Contradicting the President’s claim, a recently completed RAND study puts the cost of trans-related medical care at less than 0.0000001% of the military budget, and well behind military spending on Viagra and Cialis – two pharmaceuticals used to treat erectile dysfunction.

President Trump’s second argument focuses on the effectiveness of the military, and relates directly to research we have conducted on gender integration of Army Special Forces. For this project we surveyed men in Special Forces and women who had deployed with them as Cultural Support Teams or enablers. We also conducted 27 focus groups to hear directly from them about their views of gender integration.

Eighty-four percent of the men we surveyed believed that women should not be able to serve in the elite Special Forces units. Their objections to gender integration largely focused on the potential breakdown of unit cohesion, arguing that women’s presence would be disruptive. Even when men conceded that women may be able to physically and mentally handle the demands of Special Forces, they opinioned that having women on their teams would be a sexual distraction that would disrupt the close-knit culture and bond the men rely on to be truly elite soldiers.

As we dug deeper into the men’s beliefs, it turned out that few of them had ever worked with women in professional environments. When they discussed women, men often relied on basic stereotypes or anecdotal references to the women in their personal lives, saying things like, “my girlfriend couldn’t hang in this environment.” Drawing on gender stereotypes, they often tokenized individual women and then generalized their opinion to all women because they had rarely been exposed to women beyond their limited personal lives.

Men also referenced their fear of working with women to justify their opposition to gender integration. Some of their fear was based on the potential risk that women would make false claims of sexual harassment or sexual assault. This was largely a straw man argument; there is no evidence that women use sexual harassment or sexual assault claims to gain power over their male colleagues in the military or any other workplace.

As the men further unpacked their fears, they frequently focused on the behavioral changes they would be required to make at work. Many men were troubled by the prospect of having to avoid making sexist jokes, stop swearing so much, and no longer having the freedom to walk around naked in their team room. Their concerns really spoke to [or revealed] their limited experiences working with women and desire to protect a hyper-masculine work environment. Men’s fears could almost always be addressed by posing some questions that challenged them to critically think about their opinions. For instance, what is the purpose of the sexist joke in the first place, and is there a reason that men need to censor themselves in mixed gender company? Have they been around women before? Many women swear quite regularly, and censoring men’s language may have more to do with their unease than women’s unease. And, perhaps the most puzzling question, why are men walking around naked for long periods of time at work?

Unlike their male colleagues, the women in our study did not view the masculine culture of Special Forces as a sacred workplace environment that needed to be preserved or guarded. For example, the overwhelming majority of women (78%) were willing to use mixed gender bathroom facilities with men, noting that bathrooms were utilitarian spaces where you do your business, get clean, and move on. In contrast, less than half (48%) of men were even willing to consider sharing bathroom facilities.

Men and women’s differences in opinions largely came down to arguments of privilege—either challenging it or protecting it as the status quo― that have shaped the cultural norms in the military. The organization was built exclusively for men, and many of them thought it would be inefficient to create a new space for women so the obvious solution was to exclude women from Special Forces. As others have noted, these are the same arguments people have used to oppose racial integration and exclude gay service members. Arguments against trans service members rely on the same basic fears and unexamined assertions of privilege that ironically do not connect with the fundamental values of equity and human rights that our military fights for on a daily basis.

Steeped in a long history of privilege, the military is often oblivious to how deeply ingrained stereotypes permeate the policies, practices, and norms of the organization. The military routinely relies on basic gender binaries and struggles with gender non-conforming soldiers and individuals who do not fit into simple cis-gender categories. However, these are not ethical arguments to exclude trans service members, or women, or gay people, or people of color. Rather, these are moments for leaders to ask themselves how privilege may steer the decision-making process. Invoking tired and overused false claims of efficiency or effectiveness is an easy narrative to fall back on rather than engage with the important work that it will take to get closer to equity. The military deserves to have an organizational culture that reflects the basic values our military is fighting for around the world. We must expose false claims of efficiency, or effectiveness and think critically about the red herrings that pull us away from achieving basic equity.