On July 26, President Trump unceremoniously announced via Twitter a ban on transgender people serving in the military. This week, he took the first steps toward formalizing this unilateral decree.
Attempting to rationalize such a ban, Trump cited the cost of providing health care to transgender solders. Aside from the fact that all soldiers need healthcare, the cost of gender-affirming healthcare represents at most 0.13% of military healthcare spending. Even this percentage is likely an over-estimate because transgender people take highly individualized paths toward their authentic gender expression. It’s unlikely that every transgender soldier or veteran will even want surgical interventions. However, for those who do, these procedures can be both life-changing and life-saving.
“Cost arguments” are a common tactic used to deny minority groups their civil rights. In debates over who is “fit to serve,” social conservatives often cite rising costs as a reason to maintain the status quo. Whether it was African Americans or women or gay/lesbian/bisexual soldiers, right-wing groups covered their opposition to social justice with a veneer of financial pragmatism. Such euphemistic discrimination isn’t confined to the Pentagon. Corporate America often cites cost when it opposes equal pay for women or insurance coverage for contraception. The specter of law suits and legal costs is used to dissuade legislators from passing employment nondiscrimination laws. Even today, in 2017, transgender people (along with LGB folks) aren’t protected by federal non-discrimination provisions. This is due in part to lobbying by many of the same right-wing organizations currently supporting Trump’s transgender military ban.
Besides being misleading, Trump’s argument neglects the true cost of the ban he is proposing. According to a 2014 report by The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, there are an estimated 149,800 transgender military personnel. This includes 15,500 active duty service members who would be fired and 134,300 veterans who would be denied healthcare under the proposed ban. Such actions are both unconscionable and in direct conflict with Trump’s self-styled persona as the “Jobs President.” Also, based on these estimates, transgender individuals pursue military service at disproportionately higher rates compared to their representation in the general US population. Trump has singled out a group of soldiers who are both able and perhaps more willing than others to serve. Such a ban weakens our military.
The most important cost of Trump’s military ban is the societal and health implications for military personnel, veterans, and transgender people across the country. Transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, face disproportionately high rates of violence. Each year, the transgender community and allies gather for Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor those lost to violence. These heart-wrenching ceremonies serve as annual reminders that discrimination is not innocuous, as anti-transgender advocates and Mr. Trump would have us believe. Discrimination in healthcare, housing, and employment are common experiences for transgender people and are linked to increased risk for depression, HIV infection, substance abuse, and even suicide. Nothing is costlier than the loss of a life. My transgender friends and patients are some of the most courageous people I know. They risk their lives daily to walk out their front door and down the street, living authentic lives. Transgender people are teachers and preachers, physicians and actors. They are Navy Seals like Kristin Beck, authors like Janet Mock, and artists like Kate Bornstein. Most importantly, they are parents and siblings, spouses and children. Banning transgender soldiers has effects far beyond the military. Such discrimination permeates American society, sending the message that the Commander-in-Chief believes certain lives are worth less than others.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Medical Association recognize the impact of transphobia and discrimination on health. Being transgender is not a mental illness and the APA has spoken out against discrimination or denial of services to transgender people. Furthermore, medical research has demonstrated the necessity of gender-affirming health care and the positive impact such health services have on the mental and physical wellbeing of transgender patients.
By proposing such a ban, Mr. Trump is asking transgender people to pay with their dignity, their livelihood, their health, and potentially even their lives. This cost is far too high for any of us bear.