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Truth and consequences of the military transgender ban

Education matters, and I don’t want to see anyone who is academically qualified excluded from pursuing a college degree. This is even more the case when the underlying rationale is based on ignorance and bigotry.

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Máel Embser-Herbert
On Friday, April 12, the Trump administration’s prohibition on the military service of transgender individuals went into effect.

The impact of that ban is now beginning to emerge. The U.S. Naval, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academies will ban transgender students beginning in 2020. Other service academies, which include the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, are expected to follow suit. This is a loss for our country. The applicants to these institutions are among the best and the brightest of our citizens; to bar students, who otherwise make the cut, because they are transgender denies the military valuable talent, talent that is very much needed.  

Other higher education institutions will likely be affected as well. It has been reported that Map Pesqueira lost his Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship to the University of Texas when, because of the ban, the Department of Defense rescinded the award. It’s likely that other students will have their scholarships revoked as well. Students who lose such funding were often dependent on that aid and typically have a difficult time finishing college. Schools will lose them and the military will lose future officers.   

As a college professor and a veteran, I am bothered by those consequences. Education matters, and I don’t want to see anyone who is academically qualified excluded from pursuing a college degree. This is even more the case when the underlying rationale is based on ignorance and bigotry.

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Since June of 2016 when then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that transgender persons would be welcome to serve openly in the armed forces, at least 1,500 service members have come out as transgender. Almost two years later, in April 2018, the chiefs of every military branch testified before Congress that the presence of openly transgender personnel had not undermined cohesion, one of the fears often cited as a basis for exclusion.

That same month a panel of retired military Surgeons General and a range of scholars released a 55-page report indicating that the Defense Department’s (DOD) rationale for reinstating ​a prohibition on transgender military service was based on a series of mischaracterizations and distortions including mental health and medical concerns.

The alternative facts in that report were significant enough to cause the American Medical Association (AMA) to issue a statement questioning the scientific basis of the DOD decision. In the same statement, the AMA reiterated that there is no medical reason to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military.

The DOD also cited the perceived inability to deploy as a reason for the ban, yet there no evidence to support these assertions and there is evidence to refute them.

Army Captain Alivia Stehlik, a West Point graduate and Afghanistan veteran, recently appeared before Congress with four other transgender service members and stated that there were no issues “serving while trans.” In fact, Stehlik testified that her transition made her a more effective soldier as the troops with whom she served valued her authenticity.

We are only beginning to see the consequences of the ban on transgender individuals serving in the military, and likely there will be more. The truth is that the full impacts have yet to be known, but they will no doubt be significant.  

Máel Embser-Herbert, Ph.D., J.D., is a sociology professor at Hamline University and the author of “Camouflage Isn’t Only for Combat: Gender, Sexuality, and Women in the Military (1998, NYU Press)” and “The U.S. Military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Policy: A Reference Handbook (2007, Praeger Security International).” Embser-Herbert is also the author of Transgender Military Service: A Snapshot in Time” in The Palgrave International Handbook of Gender and the Military (2017, Woodward and Duncanson, Eds.).