Having already in February ordered the Department of Education to stop protecting trans students at school (despite Title IX protecting them), on Wednesday morning Trump announced trans people could no longer serve in the military. Of course, Trump being Trump, he made the important policy announcement via a series of morning tweets. Pieced together, they read:
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. 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. Thank you.”
This statement reverses a path of inclusion the military had been walking down for over a year. Last summer, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter studied the issue extensively and announced transgender troops could serve openly in the military and receive coverage for hormone therapy and gender-reassignment surgery. He also ordered the military to study whether to allow new transgender recruits into the military. This decision was supposed to be made by July 1st, but the timeline was extended by six months. All indications were, though, that now-Defense Secretary James Mattis was going to allow new transgender recruits.
All of this changes now. As president, Trump is commander-in-chief of the military. (The Constitution makes no exception for draft-dodgers or those who criticize American prisoners of war.) Because he’s in charge of the armed forces, and there’s no law from Congress on this issue, he can set these kinds of policies. Any military leaders who refuse to implement this new announcement could be forced to step aside by the president.
Trump cannot, however, set aside the Constitution and its guarantees of equality. Though not many courts have ruled on the issue of whether the Constitution protects against trans discrimination, there is a small trend recently of courts finding that discrimination against trans individuals is a form of sex discrimination, something the Constitution prohibits unless the government has a really good reason for doing so. Here, given the abrupt change of policy – and that the military seems to have been caught off-guard, the very low cost of providing care to transgender service people, and the strong record of service by those already in the military – it’s hard to imagine the policy surviving constitutional review of any kind.
In the meantime, though, for the thousands of trans people already in the military, as well as those looking to serve their country, Trump’s announcement is as confusing as it is devastating. Will trans people serving in active military operations have to stop whatever they’re doing immediately? Will they be dishonorably discharged? Will career officers be forced out of their long-standing profession? Will new recruits once again have to hide who they really are in order to join the military?
All of that is unknown at this point. But what is known is that immeasurable shame and stigma come from an announcement like this. President Trump has once again thrown trans people under the bus out of cruelty and an eye for political gain.