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President-elect Biden has previously promised to reverse President Donald Trump’s ban on certain transgender individuals from from serving in the U.S. military, and recent analysis suggested that it could be accomplished in as little as 30 days.
The analysis was part of a memo released in July by the Palm Center, a think tank that studies gender and policy issues in the military. According to that memo, the ban would be easily reversed, because under the so-called “Mattis Plan” implemented by the Trump administration, the Pentagon granted exemptions for an estimate 1,600 transgender service members who had already transitioned while serving under the Obama-era “open service” policy.
“The Department of Defense left all the necessary breadcrumbs to mark the way back to inclusive service,” the memo reads. “DoD’s plan to implement Trump’s ban was always inconsistent because it served contradictory goals. On the one hand, DoD announced from the start that ‘the department will carry out the president’s policy direction,’ which was to return to the prior era of disqualifying transgender Americans from military service. On the other hand, DoD also wanted the flexibility to retain the transgender personnel who were already in service or contracted to join.”
The memo was endorsed by nine major military, LGBTQ, and progressive groups who have vocally opposed the Trump restriction: the Center for American Progress, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, the Modern Military Association of America, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All (SPART*A), and Transgender American Veterans Association.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, says that the reason Biden could act so quickly is because Trump’s ban represents a “very rare, if not unique situation” in which reversing it wouldn’t require development of “any new policies.”
“[The military] doesn’t need to do anything differently,” Belkin says. “The only thing that need to be done in order to make sure that all transgender troops can serve equally is to cancel the Trump ban.
“So, in other words, just rip the Trump ban out of regulations and leave the inclusive regulations in place,” he adds. “The Pentagon is already providing medical care to grandfathered troops, that the Pentagon already has standards for grooming. The Pentagon already has policies around gender transition. So just leave that stuff in place, because it’s all good policy.”
Belkin notes that unlike in 2015, when the Pentagon had to study and examine how to write regulations to allow transgender troops to serve, or prior to 2011, when it had to do the same for gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members, the leg work has already been done.
“In 99 percent of cases when you implement new military policy, you do need to study the situation carefully and go through a very deliberate policy formulation and implementation process,” Belkin says. “But that was already done with inclusive policy for transgender personnel under the Obama administration.
“Some people may not realize that the trans ban did not replace inclusive policy. It just superseded inclusive policy by layering discrimination on top of inclusive policy. So all you need to do is literally just erase the discriminatory language out of the regulations and leave the underlying inclusive policy in place.”
Advocates of open service who were critical of the Trump administration’s ban have had their opinions bolstered by a new study finding that — contrary to the Pentagon’s ultimate goal of preserving military readiness — the restrictions on transgender service members ended up “compromising recruitment, reputation, retention, unit cohesion, morale, medical care, and good order and discipline.”
That study, co-authored by three former military Surgeons General — Vice Admiral Donald Arthur, of the U.S. Navy, Gale Pollock, of the U.S. Army, and Rear Admiral Alan Steinman, of the U.S. Coast Guard — as well as Palm Center scholars, who analyzed retention and recruitment patterns, based on data from the Pentagon, surveyed active-duty trans service members, and interviewed other military personnel to reach their conclusions.
Among their findings were that the trans ban artificially constricted the military recruiting pool by categorically disqualifying out transgender individuals from enlisting, placed unnecessary burdens on serving personnel, undermined unit cohesion and moral by enabling harassment and promoting stigma against trans personnel, and undermined leadership by creating separate and often conflicting standards and rules.
Lt. Col. Bree Fram, an active-duty astronautical engineer in the U.S. Air Force, for 18 years, is one of those few 1,600 trans service members currently exempt from the Trump administration’s ban. She currently serves as vice president and communications director for SPART*A, which has been urging President-elect Biden to reverse the Trump-era policy.
“This is what we’ve been looking forward to, and hoping that the example of our service would lead to, getting back to a policy of open service where everyone has the chance to reach their full potential as a service member,” Fram tells Metro Weekly. “We’re confident that the the Biden administration will follow through on this and will quickly return us to the 2016 policy of open service. And then from there, we can work to improve that, to make sure it is fit for the times and does aid us in making sure that everyone can be the best soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Coastguardsman, space professional that they can be and that we’re bringing in the best and brightest to defend this nation.”
Fram says reversing the open service policy could be as simple as “the stroke of a pen.” She believes that the change in policy would be welcome be most service members.
While it’s disheartening to have her country’s commander-in-chief tweet that transgender people are a “burden” on the military, without any evidence to support his claims, Fram says Trump’s hostility towards trans people has pushed her to prove her capability.
“If you look at the past few years, and what they’ve done for public opinion, both in American writ-large and in the military, by shining a spotlight on our service, it highlighted the way transgender people have contributed to the military in the past, and the way we contribute to accomplishing the mission today,” Fram says. “And that quality is the most valued thing in the military: can you help us get the mission done? And transgender people are showing that day in and day out.”
“L,” a transgender Army service member who is currently serving but is not eligible for an exemption, meaning that if he chooses to openly pursue his transition while the current policy is in place, he would be deemed “medically unfit” to serve and could be discharged. He was officially diagnosed with gender dysphoria earlier this year, but had to speak to two separate psychiatrists and undergo six months of therapy before being diagnosed.
“It’s been very lonely,” L says of his status in the military. “A lot of my friends in the transgender community are exempt, so they are able to transition or they have been transitioning for several years now. So I don’t really have anybody who’s in the same position that I am.
“It can be difficult,” he adds, noting that he’s out to his chain of command. “Some days I’ve had some leadership that didn’t take very well to it, but most of my chain of command is actually very supportive. Most of them are making efforts to call me by male pronouns, as I’ve asked. Per the current policy, I can’t change my gender marker, and I can’t undergo any sort of medical treatment for gender dysphoria.
“The only thing I can really do is ask people to call me by those pronouns. But because it’s not a regulation, they technically don’t have to actually adhere to that. So it’s been very frustrating, because I know it’s just something I kind of have to live with right now.”
L says he’s hopeful that a change of policy under a Biden-Harris administration would ensure his ability to remain in the military without fear of reprisal.
“If I can serve as myself, I feel like I would be able to be the best soldier I can possibly be. I would be it would be the best leader I could possibly be,” he says.
He is skeptical of the idea that President-elect Biden would change the policy within the first 30 days, even if he potentially could, saying he expects it to take 90-100 days into the new administration.
L would ideally like to continue with his transition, and would even be willing to delay it if needed for deployment or special training. But his ability to pursue treatment would be at the discretion of his commander. He says the current policy creates problems for his doctors, who know how to help him but are prohibited from prescribing hormones at the current time, making them feel like they can’t perform their job to the best of their ability.
He adds that undergoing hormone therapy would not compromise his ability to do his job or require him to receive special accommodations, nor would his treatment create a financial burden for the military, as President Trump has previously alleged.
“Once I’m stable on hormones, which can happen as soon as three months, I can just continue to get them from the pharmacy,” he says. “The Army actually spends more on erectile dysfunction than they could on treating gender dysphoria in the military. So it’s one of the only things that has come in under budget.”
Nic Talbott, a 26-year-old college student from Lisbon, Ohio who was forced to quit Army ROTC last April due to the ban on transgender service members, is hopeful that a Biden-Harris administration will follow through on its promise to reverse the policy.
“For me, the lifting of the ban would mean that I could finally start my career. I could finally have the chance to enlist in the United States military and be treated just like everybody else and be evaluated based on my skills and my merits rather than my identity,” Talbott tells Metro Weekly.
Talbott, who is currently a full-time graduate student at Kent State University, feels the ban has stalled his career and his hopes of graduating from ROTC and commissioning as an officer.
“I’m currently living and working on my family’s farm,” he says. “And I try to keep myself busy with things like exercise in order to stay physically fit for when the ban is finally lifted.”
He agrees with the Palm Center that the policy change could happen fairly rapidly.
“We have thousands of transgender people already serving in the military and we have 18 allied countries who already openly allow transgender military service,” he notes. “So this is something that we could deploy very quickly in our own military.
“I think the Biden-Harris administration recognizes that and will make the decision to implement this as quickly as possible. I know they have a lot on their plate, and they have a lot of work to do, but I’m hoping this is something that they can roll out quickly early on in their administration.”
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