President Donald Trump signed a directive on Friday ordering the Pentagon to indefinitely extend a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, which was lifted under Barack Obama, but he appeared to leave open the possibility of allowing some already in uniform to remain.
The order also halts the use of government funds for sex-reassignment surgery for active personnel.
Trump gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to decide the matter of openly transgender individuals already serving, and he said that until the Pentagon chief makes that decision, “no action may be taken against” them.
The Obama administration in June 2016 had changed longstanding policy, declaring that troops could serve openly as transgender individuals. A July 2017 deadline was set for determining whether transgender people could be allowed to enter the military, but Mattis delayed that to Jan. 1, 2018, and Trump has now instructed Mattis to extend it indefinitely.
An anonymous White House official who briefed reporters on the presidential order would not say whether Trump would permit any exceptions for the hundreds of transgender individuals already openly serving in the military.
That official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House, said Mattis has been directed to take a number of factors into consideration in determining how to deal with transgender individuals already serving. Those factors will include “military effectiveness,” budgetary constraints and “unit cohesion,” as well as other factors Mattis deems “relevant.”
The ban, justified on grounds of cost and disruption, faces a legal challenge by transgender rights activists.
“This policy is a shameful slap in the face to people who put their lives on the line everyday to defend our country…” said Jennifer Levi, an official at Glad (GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders), in a statement.
“We are moving quickly with our plaintiffs to see that a court puts a stop to this latest demonstration of President Trump playing politics with people’s lives.”
Trump gave Mattis six months to come up with a policy on those currently serving, and he must implement it by March 23, 2018, the official said.
In a tweet last month, Trump said the federal government “will not accept or allow” transgender individuals to serve “in any capacity” in the military.
Carl Tobias, a legal expert at the University of Richmond’s School of Law, said, “Trump seems to be granting Mattis discretion to decide which currently serving transgender people can continue to serve. It appears that Mattis has discretion substantively and procedurally.”
The White House official on Friday said Trump also directed Mattis to halt the use of federal funds to pay for sexual reassignment surgeries and medications, except in cases where it is deemed necessary to protect the health of an individual who has already begun the transition. That policy is to be written within six months and implemented by March 23.
In his directive to Mattis, Trump said he found that his predecessor’s transgender policy was flawed.
“In my judgment, the previous administration failed to identify a sufficient basis to conclude” that ending the longstanding ban on transgender service would not “hinder military effectiveness and lethality” and be disrupting in the ranks, he wrote.
Dana W. White, the main spokeswoman for Mattis, issued a two-sentence statement saying Mattis had received White House guidance on transgender policy, adding, “More information will be forthcoming.”
It was just one year ago, in June 2016, that then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that transgender individuals could serve openly for the first time. Prior to that, most transgender people in the military had been forced to keep their status secret to avoid being discharged.
Since Carter’s policy change, some troops — possibly a couple hundred — have openly declared their status as transgender individuals.
Just last week, Mattis suggested he was open to the possibility of allowing some transgender troops to remain in uniform.
“The policy is going to address whether or not transgenders can serve under what conditions, what medical support they require, how much time would they be perhaps non-deployable, leaving others to pick up their share of everything,” he said.
Estimates of the number of transgender troops in the service vary widely. A Rand Corp. study said roughly 2,500 transgender personnel may be serving in active duty, and 1,500 in the reserves. It estimated only 30 to 130 active-duty troops out of a force of 1.3 million would seek transition-related health care each year. Costs could be $2.4 million to $8.4 million, it estimated.
Among those who have cheered Trump’s tweet, Elaine Donnelly said the president is halting “a massive social experiment.”
“Expensive, lifelong hormone treatments and irreversible surgeries associated with gender dysphoria would negatively affect personal deployability and mission readiness, without resolving underlying psychological problems, including high risks of suicide,” said Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Army combat veteran, said the Pentagon should not exclude people based on gender status.
“If you are willing to risk your life for our country and you can do the job, you should be able to serve — no matter your gender identity or sexual orientation,” she said Thursday. “Anything else is not just discriminatory, it is disruptive to our military and it is counterproductive to our national security.”
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