Fighting Chance

New Battle Looms Over Trans Troops

On July 1, we will know whether transgender people can officially enlist in the military—or whether President Trump's administration will make them wait even longer.

For transgender people hoping to join the armed forces, Pride Month is a countdown.

A May memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work gave the Chiefs of Staff a May 31 deadline to determine the military’s “readiness to begin accepting transgender applicants on July 1, 2017,” as USA Today first reported.

On that date or sooner, we will know whether or not transgender people can officially enlist in the military—or whether a Trump-led executive branch will make them wait even longer.

Transgender troops have already been allowed to serve openly in the military for almost a year, following a June 2016 announcement from then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

Estimates of the total number of transgender troops vary, numbering as high as 15,500, including the National Guard and Army Reserves.

But transgender people are still not permitted to enlist. In his announcement, Secretary Carter gave the services one year—until the July 1 deadline—to conduct trainings and prepare to implement the new policy.

Those trainings have been taking place, as Military.com has reported, and Deputy Secretary Work’s memo is a clear indication that the July 1 deadline remains in place.

But one sentence in that memo has made some LGBT advocates concerned about possible delays or reversals, as USA Today, the Military Times, and The Hill have all reported. The sentence in question: “We do not intend to reconsider prior decisions unless they cause readiness problems that could lessen our ability to fight, survive, and win on the battlefield.”

Former acting undersecretary of defense Brad Carson told USA Today that this particular line in the memo “could be seen as an opportunity to reconsider the policy.” And the Military Times, citing anonymous “multiple sources with knowledge of these internal discussions,” reported that “senior leaders” in the military are still concerned about beginning transgender enlistment in July.

But Matthew Thorn, executive director of Outserve-SLDN, an advocacy group for LGBT service members, told The Daily Beast that LGBT advocates shouldn’t panic just yet.

“We’re still optimistic that the Pentagon will follow through on its July 1st deadline,” he said in a phone interview, noting that it would be “unconscionable for them to delay that process after it’s been announced and been in the works for quite some time.”

Another promising sign is a late May press release from the Navy praising the 2016 decision to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military and seeming to signal eagerness for the recruiting policy to officially change, too.

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“To remain the finest seagoing fighting force, the Navy needs men and women who are the right fit for the right job regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, creed or gender identity,” said Capt. Candace Eckert, the Navy’s special assistant for Inclusion and Diversity in the press release. “Our goal is to ensure that the mission is carried out by the most qualified and capable Sailors. If an individual can meet the Navy’s standards, they should be afforded the opportunity to be part of the One Navy Team.”

Pentagon spokesperson Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the forthcoming deadline.

In the absence of official comment—and as the Trump administration remains silent on Pride Month—the fate of the recruiting policy is still unclear.

During the campaign, Trump seemingly dismissed transgender military service as “political correctness” and he appointed Mark Green, who had a history of making anti-LGBT remarks, to be Army stecretary before Green withdrew in early May.

But Trump-appointed Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis did not oppose transgender military service during his confirmation hearings.

Anti-LGBT groups have remained hopeful that Mattis would reverse or slow the implementation of transgender military service.

Writing for The Daily Signal, the Heritage Foundation’s Thomas Spoehr said it would be “a gamble” to allow “transgender individuals to join the military” at this point. “There is plenty of time to conduct a full review, then make a fact-based decision on the issue,” Spoehr wrote. “The stakes are too high to do otherwise.”

But Thorn told The Daily Beast that anyone hoping for an indefinite delay in transgender military recruitment indefinitely is engaging in “wishful thinking.”

He added that the ambiguous line in the memo may have been “overly interpreted,” noting that the author, Deputy Secretary Work, is a holdover from the Obama administration who was serving when Carter lifted the ban on transgender troops. After lifting that ban, Thorn believes, the Pentagon would not be eager to change course.

“One aspect of the military is once they move on things, it is very very hard to turn that ship around,” Thorn said. “Once the chiefs of staff of the service branches have agreed on something, it is exorbitantly hard for them to turn around and say that we’re not going to do that because it throws too much chaos and influx into the force itself.”

On top of that bureaucratic inertia, the military has already been conducting trainings around this issue and thousands of transgender troops have been serving openly for almost a year. That’s why Thorn expects that any delays beyond July 1 will be minor and technical—not related to anti-LGBT pressure, whether it comes from inside or outside the Trump administration.

“It would be really absurd to say we’re not going to accept trans people into the military but we’re going to let everyone who’s currently serving—the 14,000 estimated trans service members that we currently have—continue to be allowed to serve,” said Thorn.

“If they don’t,” he also noted, “it’s unconscionable for them to delay that process after it’s been announced and been in the works for quite some time, and we will take necessary action that we have to if that’s the case.”