Trump Trans Ban Continues Historical Contest Over Military Openess By Eric van der Vort
Week ago the president unexpectedly announced a ban on transgender people in a series of tweets that caught the Pentagon off-guard and led Department of Defense officials awaiting further details before changing their policies. Yesterday the Trump administration issued a memo to the Pentagon containing details of the ban.
Extant DoD policy issued under President Obama allowed trans military service. The administration determined that trans inclusion and related medical care would be low cost and have “no significant impact” on military readiness.
LGBTQ rights groups filed suit shortly after Trump’s tweets and this litigation will take on new significance as the ban goes from proposal to reality. The effects are likely to be limited, but the fact that the Trump administration is doing this serves to advance claims by LGBTQ advocates that the president is pursuing many of the same anti-LGBTQ policies favored by many in the GOP.
This runs contrary to claims that Trump is a friend to the LGBTQ community. While the president himself may be closer to his New York City roots in his attitudes, the policies of his administration are deep in well-trodden territory.
Debates about LGBTQ rights in many different venues and aspects of our society revolve around one central question: inclusion or exclusion. LGBTQ advocates favor inclusive policies, seeking to shatter closet doors and make it possible to live openly and honestly. Their opponents tend to favor limiting inclusion. This position is less popular in our more inclusive times, but many Americans would still prefer to see LGBTQ rights limited or denied.
In the military context, the trans ban mirrors these debates about inclusion and exclusion. The military has a long history of preventing lesbians, gays, and bisexual (LGB) people from serving. Nearly 100 years of policy-making debated this very question. Policy has ranged from completely exclusive as early as World War I to almost completely inclusive when DADT ended in 2010 and the trans ban lifted in 2016.
The trans ban is only the latest in this series of policies, but the logic behind it is the same as previous bans on LGB. The claims made to support these bans invoke certain ideas: the cost of inclusion; the harms done to morale, readiness, and recruitment; and the unsuitability of LGBTQ people for military life.
Studies by the RAND Corporation dismantle all of these arguments. There is no evidence in American military experience or in the experiences of other countries demonstrating any harmful effects of LGBTQ inclusion in the military.
This means that debates about whether LGBTQ people are fit to serve or not are not about military readiness or the moral character of people are instead more of a political question. Determinations about who is worth inclusion and who should be excluded are central to American politics, including immigration policy, social policy, tax policy, and education policy, to name a few examples.
Political scientist Rogers Smith argues that ‘ascriptive hierarchies’ assign worth to some and not others. In the American military, worth is traditionally assigned to masculinity, to strength, and to heterosexuality. LGBTQ inclusion challenges that assignment of worth that a century and more of policy has reinforced.
The Trump administration’s trans ban has little to do with military efficacy or readiness. It is all about a long-standing effort to reinforce the privilege we assign masculinity and strength. The ban is the latest salvo in an ongoing culture war issue, understood by critics as cruel and unnecessary.
The immediate focus is now on Secretary of Defense James Mattis who has “wide discretion” over the implementation process. If recent history of LGB inclusion in the military is any indication of outcomes, the ban is not destined to last.
Eric van der Vort is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at The Maxwell School of Syracuse University.