The Trump administration adamantly defended its new ban on most transgender people in the military on Wednesday, repeatedly claiming “this is not a ban” and “it does not allow discrimination.”
“Merely identifying as transgender has no practical military consequence,” a Department of Defense official told reporters on a conference call.
But the policy will have life-changing consequences for transgender people.
The memorandum released Tuesday night allows troops to personally consider themselves transgender, making up the basis for the administration’s argument. But it will require the military to discharge service members who appear transgender or act transgender by failing to meet grooming, uniform, and other military standards for their birth sex.
Further, it will prohibit people from enlisting in the armed forces if they have transitioned from their “biological sex” to another gender.
“Under the new policy, if they transitioned prior, they would not be eligible for accession into the military,” the official said about rules set to take effect on April 12. “I really don’t get any logic to how this gets you to this is a ban on transgender service.”
The event amounted to an elaborate gas-lighting, with familiar whiffs of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. In both cases, Trump announced the policies as outright bans before officials revised them incrementally (to bypass earlier court rulings) and then insisted they weren't bans at all.
The transgender military memo, signed by David L. Norquist, who is currently performing the duties of the deputy secretary of defense, prohibits service members who exhibit gender dysphoria, the condition of experiencing a distressing clash between one’s gender and sex assigned at birth. Gender dysphoria is, for many, the essence of being transgender.
Pentagon officials attempted to thread a semantic needle. They said not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria, and that troops could say they are transgender, provided they act like they aren’t. The officials also said transgender troops serving openly under a 2016 policy could continue to do so, essentially under a grandfather exemption.
For those not grandfathered in, however, the policy demands they meet the military’s prescribed expectations of their birth sex — including uniforms, haircuts, names, pronouns, and physical tests. As the official put it, “The policy is such that all members of the military must meet the standards associated with their biological sex and they must must dress in the uniform associated with their biological sex.”
In practical terms, this means that if a transgender man were allowed into military service, he would have to pretend to be a woman and could not undergo any transition. He would be forced to use a woman's name, wear woman's attire, and live as a woman while in service — otherwise he would be discharged.
Still, the official argued, “Nobody is discharged solely on the basis of their gender identity.”
The experience of gender dysphoria leads many people to be transgender, and some undergo a gender transition, thereby harmonizing their gender identity with their gender presentation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, does not classify gender dysphoria as a mental disorder. Yet the Pentagon’s new policy considers it disqualifying. “Anyone who has a condition such as gender dysphoria has an impact on readiness standards,” said the official, who said some transgender people don’t experience dysphoria.
A second Defense Department official added, “This is not an attempt to ban transgender service.”
But Democratic members of Congress were not buying it.
“Make no mistake, this is a discriminatory ban on transgender people, not a ban on a medical condition and we will continue to fight against this bigoted policy,” said Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
Meanwhile, House Armed Services Committee Vice Chair, Rep. Anthony Brown of Maryland, declared it “a ban that purges transgender persons,” while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement calling it a “disgusting ban on transgender servicemembers” and a “cowardly ban.”
In June 2016, the Obama administration lifted a decades-long ban after finding transgender troops didn’t harm the military. Trump reversed that decision in 2017, saying that transgender people would render the military “burdened with medical costs and disruption.”
Trump formalized the policy in a memorandum that August — but four courts soon issued preliminary injunctions putting the ban on hold as legal challenges moved forward. All four of the challenges will proceed even if Trump implements the ban.
The policy evolved in February 2018, when former defense secretary James Mattis recommended banning most transgender personnel but allowing those who’d already joined and transitioned to remain in the ranks. Trump then rescinded his own 2017 order while officials sought to implement Mattis’s recommendations.
The Trump administration said Friday it would implement the policy, despite lawyers for transgender challengers insisting a federal injunction in DC District Court still blocks the policy. On Tuesday, the judge in that case ordered the government to explain why it planned to implement the policy.
In the same case, the DC Court of Appeals found in January that the administration made “substantial” changes from the original version of the ban Trump first announced on Twitter in July 2017, fixing problems that led judges to block it in the first round of litigation. The court said the ban wasn't a ban at all, because transgender people could still serve if they presented as their sex identified at birth.
“This new policy does not allow discrimination based on gender identity,” the second official said on the call, appearing to echo the court’s thinking. “You can reveal your preference and reveal you are transgender, but you have to serve under standards of your biological sex.”