What Would a Fair Transgender Policy in the Military Look Like?

By | 2017-08-03T15:56:47+00:00 July 30th, 2017|
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President Trump’s announcement via Twitter last week that he would discontinue administrative directives ordering the armed forces to accommodate transgender men and women in the military has met with an all-too-predictable response. Democrats are apoplectic, engaging in a mix of virtue signaling and flag waving. Thus my congressman, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), a co-chairman of the LGBT Equality Caucus, huffed: “The President’s action today is despicable . . . There are thousands of transgender people serving in the Armed Forces. They are heroes. They deserve our thanks.”

Many Republicans objected as well. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a prepared statement, “there is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train, and deploy to leave the military—regardless of their gender identity.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, announced the current policy would remain in place for now. “In the meantime,” Dunford said, “we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect . . . As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”

As usual, the press reported Dunford’s response as show of resistance to the policy change and as military “pushback” to the president, something liberals approve only when it is directed against a Republican. And it is doubtful that his memo indicates the military’s disagreement with changing the policy. A recent poll found only 12 percent of military personnel viewed allowing transgenders to serve in the military as “helpful,” while 41 percent found it “hurtful.” If anything, the memo was only a reminder that since a presidential tweet does not constitute policy; the current approach will remain in place until such time as the president orders the secretary of defense to formally revoke the Obama policy; and the secretary of defense issues guidance on how to implement the new rules..

What can we say about the plan to revoke Obama-era transgender policy? For one thing, it violates no one’s “rights.” Transgender people continue to possess all of the rights of their fellow citizens, but there is no “right” to serve in the military. The military rejects many people based on physical and psychological conditions.

Second, we are not talking about changing a longstanding policy. Opening service to transgenders was an executive decision made during the last year of the Obama administration; it was scheduled to go into effect in June. The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps had originally requested a two-year delay to assess the costs and possible consequences of the new rules, but finally agreed to seek a six-month delay, a request approved by Secretary James Mattis. Meanwhile, Congress failed to hold hearings on the subject. A change in the policy would be nothing but a return to the status quo ante.

Third, liberal activists insist on treating transgender military service as the latest milestone on the road to complete social justice, one that stretches from the integration of African-Americans into the military, to women in combat and service by open homosexuals to the present. But it is no such thing. Rather it is—or should be—an issue of military effectiveness. Does the Obama policy of transgenders in the military increase the lethality of the force or not?

The fact is that there are perfectly good reasons to ban service by transgenders. People who identify as transgender suffer a host of mental health and social problems—including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse—at higher rates than the general population. For instance, a 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality survey found 53 percent of transgender respondents aged 18 to 25 reported

experiencing current serious psychological distress [compared to 10 percent of the general population] . . . Forty percent (40%) of respondents have attempted suicide at some point in their life, compared to 4.6% in the U.S. population. Forty-eight percent (48%) of respondents have seriously thought about killing themselves in the past year, compared to 4% of the U.S. population, and 82% have had serious thoughts about killing themselves at some point in their life . . . 29% of respondents reported illicit drug use, marijuana consumption, and/or nonmedical prescription drug use in the past month, nearly three times the rate in the U.S. population (10%). . . . 

Meanwhile, transgender veterans are found to have the highest rates of mental health problems in the United States. A 2016 study found 90 percent of military members who identify as transgender were diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder, and almost 50 percent were hospitalized after attempting or considering suicide.

Advocates of transgender military service claim that medical costs associated with transgenderism are minimal. For instance, Axios says that the total costs of hormone treatments and “reassignment surgery” would range from $2.4 million to $8.4 million, which is “0.005% to 0.017% of all Department of Defense health care spending.” But this ignores some important points: the 10-year cost of military transgender medical care is $3-4 billion; since this means that resources are diverted from other medical causes for military personnel and veterans, it represents a very real opportunity cost to the Military Health Service. At the same time, expensive life-long hormone treatments and irreversible surgeries associated with gender dysphoria would negatively affect personal deployability and mission readiness. Why would we saddle a military with problems that can only exacerbate administrative burdens in times of stress?

Here is a proposal. A recent Rand study suggests that there are between 1,320 and about 6,000 transgender people serving in the U.S. military. But even assuming these numbers are correct, what do they mean? Do they mean those who have made the transition or those who are in transition? Clearly it is the latter group that creates the problems–administrative and financial. A possible solution: Any person who enters the military has to leave it with the same “gender” as when he/she joined. No transition. No surgery. No hormone treatment. While a biological male is in the service, he may claim to identify as “transgender” (that he is, say, a woman in a man’s body) but while he is in the service he must shower and share the head/latrine, etc. with those who share his biological sex. Even Christian (Kristin) Beck, the former Navy SEAL who has been trotted out to defend the idea of service by transgenders, did not make the transition until after he left the service. Let’s return to that approach.

About the Author:

Mackubin Owens
Mackubin Thomas Owens is dean of academics for the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC, a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal. He recently retired after 29 years as Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. From 1990 to 1997, Dr. Owens was also Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly defense journal Strategic Review and Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Boston University. Owens is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime (2009) and US Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain (January 2011) and coauthor of US Foreign and Defense Policy: The Rise of an Incidental Superpower (2015) and The Evolution of the Executive and Executive Power in the American Republic (2014). Before joining the faculty of the War College, Owens served as National Security Adviser to Senator Bob Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin, and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Nuclear Weapons Programs of the Department of Energy during the Reagan Administration. Dr. Owens is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as an infantry platoon and company commander in 1968-1969, he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired as a Colonel in 1994. Owens earned his Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Dallas, a Master of Arts in Economics from Oklahoma University, and his BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara.