PBS NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia talks to Lt. Cmdr. Brynn Tannehill, a transgender woman who served as a Navy pilot for nearly a decade and is now director of advocacy for SPARTA, an LGBT military organization.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced on Twitter that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military “in any capacity,” contradicting present policy and bringing confusion and uncertainty for trans soldiers who are currently serving.
The statement follows months of efforts to train the military on transgender issues, a process that began last July, when then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that transgender troops could serve openly in the U.S. military.
“This was a big surprise … I have several hundred panicked service members that are worried about whether they need to start looking for a job,” said Lt. Commander Blake Dremann, president of SPARTA, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ people in the military.
Last June, Carter and the Department of Defense set a one-year deadline for the military to conduct force-wide training on transgender issues and to determine how it would begin accepting transgender recruits. It also laid out a path to medical transition for service members who were currently enlisted.
Over the last year, each branch of the military has held trainings on transgender issues — and about 250 people have begun the process of transition-related care within the military, according to the Associated Press. But last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced that the military would delay accepting transgender recruits for six months while the Department of Defense researched the effects that accepting transgender troops could have on military “readiness or lethality.”
Now, trans soldiers are wondering what comes next. At a press briefing Wednesday, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House and Department of Defense would work together on implementing a new policy but gave no further details. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The conservative Family Research Council praised Trump’s announcement. “The military can now focus its efforts on preparing to fight and win wars rather than being used to advance the Obama social agenda,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement.
In interviews with the PBS NewsHour, trans soldiers and others voiced caution in the wake of Trump’s statement, saying they would continue the work of defending the country.
Last summer, when Carter made the initial announcement that trans troops would be allowed to serve openly, Sarah* was in limbo.
She was already out as a transgender woman to her chain of command and had been officially diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a medical diagnosis for people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. But she had not yet begun hormone therapy, and was not sure when, or if, she would be allowed to do so.
Hearing the announcement from Carter was a “really good feeling,” she said. “There [were] a lot of emotions, like a relief, as far as saying, I can finally start this, or there will finally be some answers.”
Now, Sarah said that Trump’s statement made her future in the armed services less clear. “I don’t know if I’m going to come into work and there’s essentially going to be a red slip waiting for me, and here’s a severance package,” she said.
Regardless, “I don’t want to overreact to a series of tweets … It does not dictate law,” she said, adding that she has not had any issues serving with her unit since she came out. “I think everyone in the military has the sense of, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter who you are and it doesn’t matter what I agree with,’” she said. “We have one job to do and that’s to protect America.”
Logan Ireland, an active duty member of the Air Force stationed at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, said he was not worried about the possibility of discharge.
“For the President to deny an able bodied, fully qualified person the inherent right to raise their right hand and serve their country, potentially giving their own life for our freedoms, is doing this country an injustice,” he wrote in a Facebook message. “I would love for my President to meet me so I can tell him about the 15,500 honorably serving transgender military members that are fighting right now for their liberties and for their country.”
Dremann said the announcement “really came out of the blue,” but cautioned active-duty soldiers to remain calm. “I encourage service members that are worried about what comes next, that we need you to continue to serve as you always have,” Dremann said. “We will continue to fight to make sure your service is not turned off, and we want to do everything in our power to make sure that happens.”
He also pointed out that the Veterans Health Administration provides hormone therapy and counseling to transgender veterans, about 5,000 of whom receive health care from the VA, according to its website.
In his announcement, Trump also claimed that transgender soldiers incur “tremendous” health care costs, a claim that research and health providers have rebuked.
In September 2015, Aaron Belkin, a professor at San Francisco State University who studies LGBTQ military issues, released a report estimating that transition-related care for transgender troops would carry a price tag of $5.6 million a year, which he called “little more than a rounding error” in the military’s $47.8 billion annual budget for health care.
And a study released last year by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization that works with the Department of Defense, estimated that 29 to 129 service members would seek transition-related care in a year, between 30 and 140 would request hormone therapy, and between 25 and 130 would see surgery, increasing health care costs by between $2.4 million and $8.4 million.
On Tuesday, Dr. George Brown, who trains clinicians in the Veterans Affairs system about trans issues, spent six hours driving from East Tennessee State University to Fort Knox, where he led a half-day-long training on transgender issues. On Wednesday morning, he heard the news of Trump’s announcement. “I think that sends a pretty chilling message to anybody who is currently serving in the military who’s transgender,” he said.
Over the last seven years, Brown has led such trainings dozens of times, mainly for health providers at Veterans Affairs facilities, but more recently for the U.S. Navy and other parts of the armed forces. He said the announcement raised concerns for trans people who followed existing policy by coming out.
“Those people have in good faith followed existing regulations and have come forward for a treatment plan,” he said. Now, he said, “their commander in chief has come out against them.”
Trump’s announcement puzzled some in his party who asked how it would affect existing regulations from the Department of Defense. In a statement, Sen. John McCain called the tweets “unclear” and pointed out that the Department of Defense is currently researching various issues related to trans people in the military, including “the medical obligations it would incur, the impact on military readiness, and related questions.”
“I do not believe that any new policy decision is appropriate until that study is complete and thoroughly reviewed by the Secretary of Defense, our military leadership, and the Congress,” he added.
Jennifer Williams, who was an honorary delegate at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, last summer, is a trans woman who advocates for LGBTQ issues within the Republican party. As a supporter of Trump’s party, the announcement was “sad news to me,” she told the NewsHour. “I do feel like less of an American today.”
*Name has been changed.