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Instead of a ban, transgender military recruits hit red tape

Nicholas Bade showed up at an Air Force recruiting office on an icy morning in January, determined to be one of the first transgender individuals to enlist in the military.

He was in top shape and had earned two martial arts black belts. He had already aced the military aptitude test and organized the stack of medical records required to show he was stable and healthy enough to serve. So he expected to be called for basic training in a month, maybe two at the most.

Six months later, he’s still waiting. And so are nearly all other transgender people who have tried to join since a federal court ordered the Trump administration not to ban them from the military.

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The Obama administration announced a plan in 2016 for the armed services to begin accepting transgender people at the start of this year. But before the plan could take effect, President Trump abruptly reversed course, announcing on Twitter in July 2017 that the military would “no longer accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity,” because the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Military leaders were given little notice of the change, which has left a wake of controversy and confusion.

Civil rights groups immediately sued, claiming that a blanket ban was unconstitutional, and the courts blocked the new rules. Three federal judges hearing separate cases issued injunctions against the ban last fall that cleared the way — in theory at least — for transgender individuals to start enlisting Jan. 1.

Since then, scores have applied — but it appears almost none have been accepted.

The Defense Department refused requests for statistics on transgender enlistments. But Sparta, an organization for transgender recruits, troops, and veterans, says that out of its 140 members who are trying to enlist, only two have made it into the service since Jan. 1.

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Others have been stymied by the Military Entrance Processing Command, which has rejected some of the applicants and kept others in limbo for months by requesting ever more detailed medical documentation. Other advocates said the Sparta members’ experiences probably reflected the overall picture for transgender enlistment.

The applicants are being stalled or turned away at a time when some branches of the military face a shortage of recruits and when recruiters have been ordered to work Saturdays to try to make up the shortfall.

“I’m now on round five of rejections,” said Bade, 38, a waiter and martial arts instructor who lives in Chicago. “Each time, they say they need even more medical information. My last one was a minor document from years ago.”

Bade began taking hormones in 2014 and had breast-removal surgery a year later. He has had so few issues since then, he said, that he often forgets he is transgender. His ambition is to become a dog handler in the Air Force’s security forces, but he is beginning to wonder if it will ever happen.

Other applicants in limbo say their transgender status rarely hinders them in civilian life. One is a rugby coach. One is a substitute teacher. One repairs tractors and heaves bales of hay for the cattle he and his grandmother keep on a farm in Appalachia. Another moves 200-pound tanks of carbon dioxide for a job creating special effects for Broadway shows.

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Transgender groups like Sparta initially hailed the court injunctions last fall as victories. But their optimism has melted as months have passed with so few people actually being allowed to enlist. Most advocacy groups are trying to be patient, chalking up the delays to the inevitable inertia of a giant bureaucracy forced to change. But some are beginning to question whether the delays are evidence of an effort to keep transgender recruits out, despite the court rulings.

The Defense Department declined to make any officials available for interview, citing pending litigation. It would not say how long transgender individuals had been kept waiting or how many had been rejected on medical grounds. But it said in a written statement that it “continues to comply with the court order” and that “the time it takes to review each individual record will vary based upon the individual.”

Thousands of transgender troops, who officially came out or transitioned in the military when the Obama administration decided in 2016 to lift a ban, are serving now. A Rand Corp. study in 2016 estimated their number at between 2,000 and 11,000.

Leaders of the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard told Congress this spring that they have seen no issues with the transgender troops.

But the Trump administration continues to oppose any transgender military service. Before it was blocked by the court injunctions, the administration sought not only to keep transgender troops from joining but also to discharge those already in the ranks.

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