What does Trump’s transgender ban mean for active-duty military members?

Politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: From President Trump today, an abrupt announcement. He is reinstating a ban on transgender troops, and reopening the debate on who gets to serve in the U.S. military.

Word of the military policy reversal came not from the Pentagon, but from the president on Twitter. He said: "The United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military."

READ MORE: Transgender in America

And he went on: "Our military must be focused on victory, and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."

Candidate Trump had promised to protect the rights of transgender people.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about that today.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, White House Press Secretary: He's also voiced that this is a very expensive and disruptive policy, and based on consultation that he's had with his national security team, came to the conclusion that it erodes military readiness and unit cohesion, and made the decision based on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Socially conservative groups welcomed the decision, but it drew quick condemnation from many Democrats, including New York Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney.

REP. SEAN PATRICK MALONEY, D-N.Y.: We have heard every tired — every tired discriminatory argument before, and they have always fallen away over time in the face of reason and decency and equality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some leading members of the president's own party also rejected the new ban, including Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch and Joni Ernst, who served in the U.S. military in Iraq.

ASHTON CARTER, Former U.S. Secretary Of Defense: I'm announcing today that we're ending the ban on transgender Americans in the United States military.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of this comes more than a year after the Obama administration's secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, announced that transgender people would be allowed to serve openly.

The RAND Cooperation estimates there are up to 6,600 transgender troops on active duty, with possibly another 4,000 in the Reserves. Carter gave the armed services until this month to adjust. But his successor, James Mattis, recently delayed implementation by another six months.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said they need to determine whether transgender recruits have medical issues affecting their ability to deploy and meet physical standards.

Republican Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler of Missouri has unsuccessfully proposed legislation to bar medical services for transgender troops.

REP. VICKY HARTZLER, R-Mo.: The bottom line is, do we need to spend any of our precious tax dollars on these surgeries, when we have soldiers that are having trouble getting body armor and bullets?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Brynn Tannehill is a transgender former Navy pilot, and director for an advocacy group that fights for transgender service members.

LT. CMDR. BRYNN TANNEHILL (RET.), U.S. Navy: What's extraordinarily disruptive to unit cohesion is taking people who have unique, valuable skills within their units, and yanking them out of those units, ones that are often only one deep in their units. And you can't replace that. And that's what affects mission and mission accomplishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House indicated today that the military will take the lead on deciding what becomes of transgender people already serving.

Our own William Brangham has reported on transgender people serving in the military. He joins me now to further explain today's move by the president.

So, William, first, something about the term. We are talking about people who are transgender. The term transition or transitioning is also used. Help us understand the distinction.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I understand this can be confusing for a lot of people.

Just basic facts. To be transgender just means that your gender identity doesn't match your birth certificate. So, you're born as female, but you do not feel you're female. You feel like you're a male.

To transition can mean a whole spectrum of things. It can mean — it's not just the surgery people tend to think of, and certainly not every transgender person has that surgery. It can simply mean taking hormones. It can just mean changing your clothes, changing your name.

So, transitioning can be an entire spectrum from things, from medical technologies to just changing your personality a little.

William Brangham explored what it means to be transgender in the armed forces in May 2016.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we heard the president — the press secretary at the White House, Sarah Sanders, citing the president's concerns, and he tweeted about this.

He says it's expensive, the cost, the disruption. She talked about readiness, unit cohesion.

Are those factors that the Pentagon is concerned about?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As far as we know, there's no good evidence that the Pentagon has ever been concerned about those two things. On the issue of disruption, the RAND study that you cited in your report, they did a study that looked at whether or not having trans service members would cause this disruption.

And they surveyed 18 different countries around the world, including the U.K., Australia, Israel, all of whom have trans service members, and those countries reported no disruptions whatsoever, no need to change their policies.

On the issue of cost, the president said this is — I think he's implying that somehow this is going to cost a fortune for the budget. Again, this RAND study indicated that the rough costs per year are about $2 million to $8 million. That's not a lot in a $600 billion Pentagon budget.

And just for point of comparison, let's say those RAND numbers are totally wrong and it's even more. The Pentagon right now spends 10 times that amount on Cialis and Viagra, so just as a point of comparison.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another kind of medication.

William, why is this happening now? Is there a sense out of the blue the president tweeted about this, this morning?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It did seem to come out of the blue.

In fact, we reached out to the Pentagon today to ask them about that. And an indication of how much they were caught flat-footed about this, they had nothing to say and referred us back to the White House.

My sense is that there's two reasons. One, ever since the Obama administration introduced this change, there have been social conservatives, Mike Pence in particular, who have been very resistant to it. They think it's social engineering of the worst kind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The vice president.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Exactly. And they have fought it.

But, today, very specifically, there was a fight in the House amongst the GOP — they were trying to getting a spending bill passed with all sorts of goodies that the president wanted, including money for his border wall.

Some deficit and defense hawks said we need to put in a piece of legislation that bans transgender sex reassignment surgery. That was pushed back on by the leadership. And, apparently, some of these members went to the president and said, help us out with this policy.

And he then went 10, 50 yards further down the line and announced this outright ban.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, again, we see divisions inside the Republican Party over this.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, William, what does this mean for active-duty members now who are transgender, whether they're serving in this country or overseas?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That's the great unknown.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, we're working out the policy. The Pentagon has no comment on this.

I talked to some people today who are in touch with trans service members right now, and they said that there is an incredible feeling of fear and panic and just uncertainty, that you have signed up. You might be deployed overseas right now.

All of a sudden, you look at your phone, the president has tweeted that your position in the military is over, so big unanswered questions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A number of questions here.

William Brangham, we thank you.

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