Trans People Should Be Allowed to Serve in the Military


On July 26th, Donald Trump announced over Twitter that “Transgender [sic] individuals” would no longer be allowed “to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” He said that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender [sic] in the military would entail.”

The only problem with his justification for banning transgender people from the military is, well, all of it. Trans people do not have tremendous medical costs that burden the military in any significant way, and trans people are not disruptive in the military.

A 2016 study by the RAND corporation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank, found that health care costs for trans people in the US military were a miniscule amount of the overall healthcare budget for the military. They said that allowing gender transition-related treatment would only result in an increase of $2.4 million to $8.4 million annually, which is tiny compared to the $49.3 billion that the Department of Defense spent on healthcare in 2014. That means that by banning trans people from the military, Trump would only be cutting down 0.004-0.017% of the overall Department of Defense’s health care expenditures. Even if you only look at the $6 billion active-component health care costs, gender transition-related health care coverage is still only 0.04-0.13% of the active-component expenditures.

For comparison, the Defense Health Agency found that the Department of Defense spent $41.6 million on Viagra in 2014, and $82.24 million overall on erectile dysfunction (ED). Now, I believe that ED should be covered by the military’s health care as well, but if you’re looking to cut costs, it makes more sense to deny ED coverage than gender dysphoria coverage. You would save more money. But the point is, we shouldn’t be cutting any of this. Military personnel should be able to receive mental health treatment, even if that treatment is for gender dysphoria.

Some have argued that ED can be a side effect of PTSD caused by combat, but even if you enter the military with ED and don’t have PTSD, you can still receive treatment for it. Military health care doesn’t only apply to conditions resulting from combat.

Others have argued that mental health problems are grounds for dismissal, but the military does offer mental health treatment and doesn’t discharge everyone with a mental health condition. According to the RAND study, around 278,000 active-component personnel accessed mental health services in 2014. That’s compared to only 190 active-component personnel who sought gender-related mental health treatment -- and that’s the high-end estimate. Mental health services are available to cisgender people, and they should be available to trans people as well.

It should be noted, though, that not all trans people have gender dysphoria, and not all of them decide to have surgeries or take hormones -- which means that by banning all trans people, you’re also banning some people who never would’ve even used the military’s gender transition-related health care.

That’s not to mention that when gay and bisexual people have been discharged under similar rules, they were branded “mentally unfit for service” and did not get to reap any of the benefits of being a veteran.

Now to address Trump’s allegation that transgender service members would be a “disruption.” That RAND study looked at research on foreign military policies and found that integration of other groups had “no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.” Some commanders even noted that integration policies “had benefits for all service members by creating a more inclusive and diverse force.”

The study also looked at the recent US policy change to allow lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to serve in the military, as well as the policy change that allowed women to serve in more direct combat positions. They found that both changes had “no significant effect on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness,” even though similar concerns were raised about LGB people and women being integrated into the military.

This argument has been used time and time again. In 1948, when the military stopped racially segregating its personnel, many people thought that allowing people of color to serve alongside white people would harm unit cohesion. What actually happened was that the white military personnel ended up having more respect for people of color afterwards.

One report from 1945 said that 64% of white officers felt “relatively unfavorably” about serving in a company with white people and people of color. This category included things like “skeptical, didn’t like it, thought it’d cause trouble, etc.” However, after having served in the same unit with people of color, 77% of white officers said they felt more favorable towards people of color. This category included things like “feel more respect for them, like them better, etc.” Nobody reported having a less favorable attitude towards people of color afterwards.

The argument that integrating a marginalized group into the military will somehow be a disruption is a common one that we’ve seen throughout history -- and it has always been wrong.

Now, many people have argued that the US military is an imperialist force that has caused irreparable harm across the globe -- and that is indisputable. The US military has bombed innocent people and their intervention in other countries has often left those countries worse off than they were before, but banning trans people from the military is not a step towards dismantling all of that.

Some trans people might even be pleased about this because they never wanted to serve in the military anyway. But never having to consider joining the military is a privilege that many don’t have. Poor trans people often turn to the military when they have nowhere else to go. The military can provide health care, an education, a salary, a roof over your head, and necessary job skills like engineering or coding (because not all military personnel are on the front lines of combat).

Massive military reform isn’t going to happen tomorrow, and in the meantime, we have to work within our current system. We all participate in things that are arguably immoral because the system is immoral. We buy clothes made by people who are severely overworked and underpaid; we enjoy certain amenities only because millions of others around the globe are suffering. There is so much we have to change, and it is good to want to change those things -- but ignoring all other forms of discrimination on your way there only serves to harm our most marginalized communities.

I understand the knee-jerk reaction to hate the military, but for many people there is no other option. I don’t think serving in the military automatically makes you a patriot or an American hero, and I’m not asking you to unconditionally support the military, but you should support trans people who have ended up there one way or another. The fact that they are trans should not make them ineligible for the military.

It’s okay to oppose the US military and support trans people’s rights to serve in it. We can look at issues from multiple angles and understand that everything isn’t so cut and dry.

But this isn’t even about the military, really. It’s about trans people. It’s about planting a seed. It’s about convincing Americans that trans people are lesser-than. They can’t do the kinds of jobs that cisgender people do. They require such outlandish health care that they can’t be tolerated in a certain field. They don’t belong here. They’re a burden. They’re a disruption.

And that language -- that ability to so callously dismiss the lives of trans people -- will seep its way into the American consciousness if we don’t fight back against it. It will further stigmatize trans people by saying that our very existence makes us incapable of properly doing a job

This is just another way of othering trans people. They deserve to have the same opportunities as cis people in all aspects of their lives -- and that includes aspects that we may not like. If we don’t allow trans people into any problematic industry, we will lock them out of American society.

We need all Americans to know that trans people are not worse than cis people. We are not burdens. We are not disruptions. And when someone says we are, especially someone as powerful as the President of the United States, we have to fight back against that notion.

And we have to keep fighting. This isn’t the only issue that is important to trans people. Trans women of color are murdered regularly because of our society’s stigma against them. Trans people are not only excluded from public spaces and harassed because of gender-segregated bathrooms, but they also face higher rates of certain health problems like urinary tract infections because of them. Trans people need better access to health insurance to access hormone replacement therapy and surgeries that can significantly improve their mental health and quality of life. Trans people have higher rates of homelessness because of rejection from their families and the fact that many states can legally deny housing to trans people.

These are all issues that we need to care about. Trans people being allowed to serve in the military is just one part of that.

But it’s not a part we can overlook. The President is making verifiably false statements to garner hatred against a marginalized group. Now is the time to be mad.

Riley J. Dennis is a queer non-binary trans lesbian who makes videos on YouTube about social justice and politics. She strives to make her feminism as intersectional as possible, and she's also super nerdy. You can find her on Twitter: @RileyJayDennis