Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki/US Coast Guard
President Trump’s ill-conceived plan to reinstate a ban on transgender people in the armed forces has produced an unexpected silver lining: Military leaders are publicly supporting service members regardless of their gender identity.
Late last month, Trump announced — in a series of tweets, of course — that the government would not allow transgender men and women to serve in the military “in any capacity.” In response, 56 retired generals and admirals declared in a letter this past week that a ban would “cause significant disruptions, deprive the military of mission-critical talent, and compromise the integrity of transgender troops who would be forced to live a lie, as well as non-transgender peers who would be forced to choose between reporting their comrades or disobeying policy.”
With Trump’s approval numbers plunging, this is nothing more than a red-meat culture war salvo aimed at his evangelical supporters — a move with Vice President Mike Pence’s anti-LGBT fingerprints all over it.
Trump, who received five deferments during the Vietnam era, had insisted on Twitter that the armed forces “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” The RAND Corporation estimated that costs associated with medical care for gender transition would increase military health care costs by only $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually, a fraction of what the military spends on erectile dysfunction drugs.
And “disruption,” according to those who would know, will only occur if the armed services bars “honorably serving transgender troops.”
Retired veterans aren’t the only ones standing in solidarity with transgender service members. US Coast Guard commandant Admiral Paul F. Zukunft said he met with 13 openly transgender Coast Guard members to assure them that, for the time being, their status is safe. Addressing a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, Zukunft said he told them, “I will not turn my back. We have made an investment in you, and you have made an investment in the Coast Guard, and I will not break faith.’”
Except for Trump’s trio of tweets, the White House has offered no official guidance to the Pentagon as to how or when such a ban would be implemented. Until that happens, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told military commanders the current policy would remain unchanged and said, “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.”
It’s a remarkable leap from 1993, when President Bill Clinton’s plan to allow lesbians and gay men to serve openly in the armed forces was so rancorous it consumed his first six months in office. After military commanders vigorously argued that out service members would erode combat readiness and unit cohesion, Clinton settled on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” As The New York Times put it then, that policy tolerated “homosexuals in the military only if they remain silent and chaste,” but would disallow “aggressive efforts to root them out.” Before President Barack Obama signed its repeal into law in 2010, more than 13,000 LGBT service members were kicked out of the armed services under the Clinton policy.
Attitudes about the LGBT community have softened in America. Ellen DeGeneres is the queen of daytime TV. Same-sex marriages are legal in every state. At some point, most Americans realized that vilifying service members based on their sexual or gender identity undermines their service in a nation that desperately needs them. Clearly that message still eludes Trump.
We are a nation still at war in Afghanistan. Concerned that America is losing, Trump is reportedly considering shaking up command leadership. Just a few days ago, two US service members were killed when a Taliban suicide attack hit a NATO convoy in Kandahar. Nothing can be served by subtracting anyone willing to serve in a military already worn thin from the longest war — nearly 16 years and counting — in our history. (That doesn’t even take into account potential conflicts that an early-morning Trump tweet storm could plunge us into.)
Just like the ongoing backlash to his anti-Muslim travel ban, Trump has gravely misread the public mood. Only this time, it’s military leaders who are pushing back.
Admiral Mike Mullen, who served as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, said he witnessed “firsthand the harm to readiness and morale when we fail to treat all service members according to the same standards.” A new ban, he said, would “breach the faith of service members who defend our freedoms.”
There’s no telling what will happen if commanders like Zukunft are faced with enforcing an official policy that they’ve already publicly decried. Of course, if Trump had bothered to consult “my Generals and military experts,” as he called them in his tweet, he would have recognized that a real commander in chief does not deny American troops the same rights they are fighting to defend.
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