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First Openly Gay Army Secretary on Trump’s Military Trans Ban

Former Army Secretary Eric Fanning talks Trump, resistance and why this move probably isn’t coming from the Pentagon

First Openly Gay Army Secretary on Trump's New Ban

Eric Fanning, pictured here in September 2015, says Trump's tweets were like "a kick in the gut."

Sgt. Keith Anderson/ZUMA

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that the “United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” Trump made the decision after mulling things over with “Generals and military experts,” whom he failed to name. His reasoning? “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.”

While it’s still unclear just what this outburst will mean for thousands of trans service members, Trump’s call contradicts his campaign rhetoric to “fight” for the LGBTQ community. His sudden declaration reportedly appalled vacationing Defense Secretary James Mattis, and shocked Congress now debating a $790 billion spending bill that involves funding hormone therapy and gender-reassignment surgery for transgender service members.

It’s only been six years since the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, but Obama-era personnel appeared onboard with overcoming such discriminatory policies. Last year, former Defense Secretary, Ashton B. Carter, lifted restrictions on transgender troops and opened all combat positions to women. He also appointed the first openly gay Army secretary Eric Fanning, who was heralded for his ability to connect the LGBT community and the armed forces. In January, after serving 248 days as secretary, Fanning stepped down from his post. This week, Fanning spoke to Rolling Stone about how Trump’s words affect current and hopeful transgender recruits.

What was your reaction to Trump’s tweets?
It was a kick in the gut. I’ve been enjoying a break post-government-service, and when I saw the tweets, I knew my day would not be like any day before. I had to shower, get ready and go out and fight. As the morning unfolded, it was kind of panicked. In the early afternoon, it evolved in a positive way. The rally developed. The strength, the size, the force of it. For me, it was a sign that this president overreached, but he is good at least for one thing: rallying opposition. This president has rallied us and will catapult this issue forward in a way we would have done before this tweet.

How does Trump’s announcement affect the military?
I’ve been calling his words ‘tweets’ because they’re not policy or direction. I know lawyers are struggling to understand what weight this has – the tweets from the commander in chief. This is the first time – certainly since World War II – that they’re saying, you’re allowed to serve under guidance propagated under the previous president but this president is saying no longer. I don’t think that’s happened in our lifetime. I really think the uniformed leadership in the military is going to resist this. When given the order they will obey the commander in chief, but I think they’ll push back as much as they can for those thousands transgender American patriots in uniforms. Those chiefs feel responsible for those people.

Service members receive medical benefits and this is being posited as a waste that the military shouldn’t be spending resources on treatments or gender transition surgeries. Is this about health care? What do you make of Trump’s reasons for a ban?
I’ve not seen any evidence that it’ll cost the military a high amount for transition surgery. The RAND study says it’s a 0.04 to 0.13 percent increase in the medical budget. They also talk about the impact of readiness, cohesion, effectiveness. And we’ve heard those arguments when Truman announced integration 69 years ago.

If you look into the future, there’s important reasons to provide expanded services. A huge portion of the military is pretty young. You’re constantly rotating through the age group just to fill the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps. But two-thirds don’t meet the education, fitness and legal requirements. We may never fight with a draft again. So, if you build this professional all-volunteer force – which is formidable – there’s a growing divide between that force and society. It’s important as society evolves, the military evolves.

Is this a smokescreen? A Trumpian distraction from the Sessions mess? A move to protect his border wall? Political gain?
It’s clear that they’re taking a class of people who are serving admirably in the military today and targeting them. I don’t think this is coming from the Pentagon. I was there for the last 8 years. And certainly, there was an amendment on the Hill, but it was defeated last week. [RS Note: The House voted against a proposal to prevent the Pentagon from funding gender transition surgeries.] I have to believe it was something else.

The military is often in the position of leading change. They’re at the forefront of change. The military integrated under Truman two decades before the Civil Rights Act. The military pays women $1 to $1 that men make. Gays and lesbians could openly serve in the military before gay marriage in the United States. Now, the transgender issue is getting traction and attention because it’s around service. The military does an amazing job of confronting these issues and I don’t want to throw them under the bus. I believe this is being politicized by people outside the Pentagon. The president? The vice president? I don’t know. There’s certainly a lot of theories floating around Washington right now.

Carter had set a July 1st deadline for the Pentagon to develop guidelines to allow new transgender recruits into the military. Mattis recently delayed a policy by six months to “evaluate more carefully the impact.” What is this need to evaluate when there are already transgender service members today?
Readiness is everything. There’s some legitimate reasons why people want to understand this. If you want to join you should be able to fight, provide, serve. Military leaders are asking, what does it mean to transition? What’s the medical requirements? How long will they be in treatment and not deployable? There’s a lot of analysis, science and research out there that tells us that it’s not as bad as people think. There were some fair-minded reasons why people asked. Mattis really wanted to make sure that we were assessing people to deploy and fight. But I think people use ‘readiness’ and ‘cohesion’ as excuses to go against something they don’t want. ‘Readiness’ and ‘cohesion’ are phrases used to resist change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. 

The U.S. military will keep permitting its transgender members to serve openly until it receives President Donald Trump’s actual direction according to Gen. Mark Milley. Watch here.

In This Article: LGBT, Military, US Military

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