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Donald Trump’s ill-considered ban on transgender soldiers

The new policy is unjustified, inhumane and possibly unconstitutional
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Transgressive tweetsDonald Trump’s ill-considered ban on transgender soldiers

The new policy is unjustified, inhumane and possibly unconstitutional

TRANSGENDER people are no longer welcome in America’s military, Donald Trump announced abruptly on July 26th. The news seemed to catch everyone by surprise, including Pentagon officials, and was delivered via Mr Trump’s favourite medium, Twitter. “After consultation with my Generals and military experts”, Mr Trump wrote, apparently disingenuously, “please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US military”. Why the personnel change, which affects soldiers as well as cooks, chaplains and cartographers? “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail”. He added, in a flourish of politesse, “Thank you”.

The American military employs more transgender people than any other organisation in the world: around 15,500, according to a 2014 study, more than 6,000 of whom are on active duty. So a natural first question would be one sidestepped on July 26th by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary: what happens to those thousands of employees in the wake of the president’s morning tweets? Are they out of a job? “That's something that the Department of Defence and the White House will have to work [out] together as implementation takes place and is done so lawfully”, she said. Major Garrett of CBS News pressed her: “You can't answer the question of what's going to happen to transgenders who are in the military now. Shouldn't you have been able to answer that basic question with a policy of this magnitude?” Ms Sanders’s replied: “sometimes you have to make decisions”. After Mr Trump decided to sack transgender people, she explained, “he didn't feel it was necessary to hold that decision” for another day.

In other words: tweet today while the iron’s hot, and work out the details tomorrow, or next week—or whenever. In the meantime, Mr Trump’s words are plain: transgender employees of army will be neither “accept[ed] nor “allow[ed]”. The reversal of Barack Obama’s year-old policy lifting the ban on transgender soldiers is necessary, Mr Trump wrote, because of the “tremendous medical costs” and “disruption” these individuals impose. The facts do not quite bear out the president’s choice of adjective: the cost of healthcare for transgender personnel is estimated at $2.4-$8.4m a year, which amounts to about a tenth of one percent of the Pentagon’s annual $600bn budget. (For comparison, the military spends $84m a year on Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction remedies.) If the president’s worry centres on costly gender-reassignment surgeries, the remedy might be to remove these procedures from the list of covered benefits under military health plans. Mr Trump’s much more far-reaching response could stem from his frustration over the fact that in mid-July, such an effort narrowly failed in the House of Representatives.

But there may be another reason for Mr Trump’s surprise tweetstorm. According to “numerous congressional and White House sources” who spoke to Politico, “Trump’s sudden decision was, in part, a last-ditch attempt to save a House proposal full of his campaign promises that was on the verge of defeat”. The president's main worry concerned funding for the security wall on America’s southern border—the one Mr Trump has insisted Mexico will pay for. Mr Trump may have turned to Twitter to satisfy conservative legislators and secure their support to fund one of his central campaign pledges.

If Politico’s account is right, the president’s decision to toss thousands of people out of the army reflects not exactly hatredof transgender people but a cold, calculated willingness to throw them under the bus for political gain. That merely Machiavellian motivation does not render the prohibition legal. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, holds that civil-rights laws bar capricious mistreatment of people based on their gender identity. And in May, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals suggested similarly. Laws barring sex discrimination also prohibit differential treatment based on gender identity, the Seventh Circuit said—and sex stereotyping is inconsistent with the equal-protection clause of the 14th amendment.   

Whatever comes of the president’s latest botched policy roll-out, it seems he may not be the loyal friend of gays, lesbians and trans people he claimed to be during the campaign. Noting in June 2016 that Hillary Clinton would “threaten your freedoms and beliefs”, he tweeted to “the LGBT community” a promise to “fight for you”. In satirist Stephen Colbert's edit of that tweet, the message is somewhat different: "I'll fight you". 

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