ARLINGTON, Va. — Less than a year ago, Blake Dremann became the first openly transgender member of the US military to be promoted, rising from Navy lieutenant to lieutenant commander.
A ceremony formalizing Dremann’s new post in September at the United States Navy Memorial attracted national media coverage and seemed to prove that transgender service members could be accepted in the armed forces and even thrive.
Now, after President Trump posted on social media that he intends to ban transgender soldiers from serving “in any capacity,” Dremann’s future is far less certain — just as the futures of transgender students and other citizens have been disrupted by Trump after they won protections under President Barack Obama.
“I’m having to defend why I’m still in,” Dremann said, speaking to a reporter after work near the Marine Corps War Memorial here. “To turn back, after you’re allowed to come out, is awful. You allow people to feel safe. We have plenty of places you go in the military to feel not safe. Work should not be one of them.”
Trump’s announcement, in a series of three tweets Wednesday, amounted to a 180-degree shift in military policy and caught the military off guard. The move has been seen by some as an attempt to shore up Trump’s faltering presidency by energizing elements of a GOP base.
“This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin to take complete ownership of this issue,” an anonymous Trump administration official explained to the Washington news site Axios, after the president tweeted. “How will the blue collar voters in these states respond when senators up for reelection in 2018 like Debbie Stabenow are forced to make their opposition to this a key plank of their campaign?”
The administration’s efforts to roll back protections for the LGBTQ community go beyond the military. Trump’s Department of Justice filed a legal brief Wednesday arguing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 doesn’t protect workers from “discrimination based on sexual orientation,” an action branded as discriminatory by gay rights groups and a switch from Obama’s position. Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said the brief is “consistent” with the department’s longstanding policies.
And the Department of Education, in February, rescinded an Obama-era ruling that barred schools from discriminating against transgender students.
The country is taking notice. Sixteen states are debating laws in 2017 that would restrict access for transgender people to bathrooms or locker rooms, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. That’s after North Carolina passed a bathroom ban bill, and then repealed portions of it after a new Democratic governor took office this year.
And in Texas, where last week the state Senate approved a bathroom ban for transgender students, advocates on both sides say the president’s intention to ban transgender people in the military helps provide fresh momentum for the legislation.
As of Friday additional lawmakers had signed on — or expressed support — to a House bill. “There is concern that the president is providing folks with quote-unquote cover,” said Lou Weaver, with Equality Texas, a group fighting the legislation there.
He said he has seen a wholesale change in the climate for transgender people in the past six months. “People are scared,” Weaver said. “People are more worried. ‘Am I going to be able to keep my job?’ I think we’ve definitely seen a different climate.”
Groups supporting bathroom bills also believe the president’s words will spill into state-level debates.
“The president of the country is the leader of the free world — I think it will invigorate members of state legislatures to lead on these issues,” said Mandi Ancalle, the general counsel for government affairs at the Family Research Council. “And not to worry so much about how they might be attacked or cast in the media.”
Trump’s campaign pitch to LGBT voters was quite different. At the GOP convention in Cleveland last year, Trump said that he would “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens.” He invited Peter Thiel, an openly gay Republican donor, to speak to the delegates. At one point he even said that Caitlyn Jenner, perhaps the highest-profile transgender person, could use any bathroom she wants in Trump Tower.
Multiple transgender service members who were interviewed said they had no idea the reversal was in the works.
Their surprise stems partially from the idea that the military tends to move slowly on personnel policy. Obama ended the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military in 2011.
In July 2015, the Pentagon launched a formal process to consider allowing openly transgender service members. By September 2016, the Defense Department issued a 72-page handbook titled “Transgender Service in the U.S. Military,” which outlined the new policy.
The policy did not cover whether the military would begin actively recruiting transgender service members. That was initially supposed to be developed by this month, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that he would delay the process.
Still, most believed that existing policies would be left alone.
“The Pentagon is like an aircraft carrier, right? She doesn’t turn on a dime,” said Dremann, who is also the president of SPART*A, an organization that includes roughly 500 transgender active-duty service members.
The military also does not make policy via Twitter, he said. “Our leaders don’t operate that way,” Dremann said, seeming to ignore for a moment that the message came from the commander in chief. “No matter what was said, there will be a process in a legal and methodical way.”
Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a memo Thursday saying there will be “no modifications” to the current policy for the time being. “We will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” he added.
Trump’s order caused some unintended consequences — rallying support for the very population the president is attempting to ostracize.
Daniel Forester, an Army medic, said his parents have not been welcoming about his new status as a man. “My transition didn’t happen overnight,” said Forester, who recently returned from a stint in Afghanistan. “I didn’t expect my family to accept my transition.”
But as news spread about Trump’s tweets, Forester’s phone began buzzing. It was a cascade of text messages from his mother.
“She was saying, ‘What’s going on? Are you going to be okay?’ ” he said. It was one of the few times his mother had even discussed that he is transgender since he started transitioning five years ago.
Then, later in the day, something even more surprising happened. Forester’s father also weighed in with a long post on Facebook — the first time he had ever acknowledged he has a transgender child.
And to Forester’s shock, in the post his father — a Desert Storm veteran — was defending him.
Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.