The Trump Administration’s Ban on Transgender Soldiers

On Wednesday, July 26, the President Trump issued the following series of tweets announcing a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military:

Politico reports that the decision was prompted by Trump’s desire to secure funding for some of his signature campaign promises, such as defense spending increases and funding for his border wall. Importantly, this report notes that the initial conflict in the House concerned funding for gender reassignment surgeries. However, Trump went beyond this more narrow conflict and issued a general ban on transgender individuals from serving “in any capacity”. Exactly what this means for transgender soldiers who are currently serving remains unclear. Indeed, the military appears to have been caught unaware by President Trump’s statement. Today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, issued a statement declaring that there will be no changes to military policy until President Trump issues specific directions to the military.

The reaction to President Trump’s announcement has been somewhat predictable. At the National Review, a piece by David French characterizes what seems to be the typical response from opponents of open integration, saying:

The military is different. You’re trying to forge men into a team, place them into the most stressful situations humanity has ever seen, and get them to perform under pressure. Oh, and in total war you need numbers. Lots of numbers – but without fracturing unit cohesion, coddling weakness, or taking on unacceptable risks…It’s foolish to create a force that contains numbers of people who are disproportionately likely to have substantial problems. Increased injuries lead to manpower shortages in the field. Prolonged absences create training gaps. Physical weakness leads to poor performance.”

Nobody can really quibble with the desire to maintain a military that is as strong and prepared as possible. However, the rationale for the ban is based on the idea that allowing transgender people to serve will somehow reduce readiness and unit cohesion and introduce weakness into the ranks. Implicit in such arguments, is that unit cohesion will be damaged, at least in part, by the refusal of soldiers to accept transgender individuals as members of their units. This is a military problem, but it’s also a cultural and social problem. As with women, gays, and racial minorities before them, there is a significant amount of victim blaming going on here, where the oppressed are deemed unsuitable because their compatriots are not viewed as culpable for their own abusive behavior and their refusal to adapt to changing societal norms. Furthermore, it is clear that the military has some serious cultural problems affecting morale and retention that have very little to do with allowing transgender soldiers to openly serve.

This should be deeply worrying to both defenders and opponents of the ban. If we are to believe that US military personnel cannot behave in a respectful and safe manner when dealing with their own fellow soldiers, then why should we expect them to be able to perform across a wide range of social and cultural environments when they are deployed across the globe? To put it differently, we have asked thousands of young men and women to deploy to countries with radically different social, cultural, and religious practices, and we believe that these same individuals cannot cope with serving alongside transgender soldiers? One could be excused for thinking this given the military has a substantial problem with sexual assault, misconduct, and retaliation against victims who report. But the idea that we should not be holding soldiers accountable for abuse is ridiculous on its face, and in the case of transgender soldiers undermined by the fact that many of these individuals are already serving alongside transgender soldiers, even if they do not know it. A RAND study commissioned by the DOD on transgender soldiers estimates between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender individuals serving in the military. Other reports put the number closer to 16,000—approximately the size of an entire US Army division.

French goes on to argue that transgender people have disproportionately high risk factors that make them especially unsuited for life in the military, citing reports of higher suicidality, drug use, and sexually transmitted diseases relative to the US population. Ultimately, French argues that the US military is not in the business of focusing on personal validation and inclusion, and that people who need such things should look elsewhere.

I think there are a few things French gets wrong here. First are the comparisons of transgender individuals to American society as a whole and not to a more appropriate reference population—the US military. The question is whether or not the difficulties faced by transgender individuals make them especially risk-prone relative to the types of individuals the military would otherwise have in its ranks. French is not necessarily wrong that transgender individuals struggle with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality relative to the US population as a whole. Several studies report relatively high rates on these outcomes. But the US military is also not necessarily representative of the population from which its members are drawn, and it faces its own significant institutional difficulties with depression, anxiety, and suicide. In particular, the military has struggled in recent years to de-stigmatize mental health treatment. A 2009 article published by the American Psychological Association explicitly noted that mental health treatment is still highly stigmatized within the military and that soldiers’ aversion to seeking treatment is often driven by the belief that revealing mental health struggles will adversely affect individuals’ careers. This failure to disclose and adequately address mental health issues could have the kinds of serious consequences for force readiness and unit cohesion that French suggests will result from transgender individuals being allowed to serve openly.

The government has increased its efforts to address this stigma. This is, in no small part, a result of a dramatic increase in suicide rates within the US military since the onset of the War on Terror. One 2009 study found that suicide was the third leading cause of death among members of the US military, and in 2005 the US military “suicide rate was 11.4 per 100,000 (ranging from 8.9 for the Air Force to 13.7 for the Army).” A 2012 study reports that suicide rates within the US Army have increased steadily since 2001, from a low of 8.7 in 100,000 to 21.5 in 100,000, representing a 40% increase from the 2001 figures. If we do want to make comparisons to the general population, this same study notes that suicide is the 11th leading cause of death among the general US population. The 2011 figures are almost 50% higher than the latest reported civilian population figures from 2009 (14.5 in 100,000) reported in the same study. One study published in 2015 found that suicide attempts within the Army were a function of both officer versus enlisted status, but also the time since entering the military. The study found that enlisted personnel accounted for an overwhelming majority of recorded attempted suicides—98.6% occurred among enlisted personnel. Indeed, the differences in the rates between officers and enlisted personnel are staggering, ranging from 70–100 per 100,000 for new enlisted personnel versus 5–10 per 100,000 for officers of any duration. Other correlates include sex, age, educational attainment, and race. There are also reasons to suspect that these figures may dramatically under-report suicide within the military. Another 2004 study found that administrative classification procedures used in the military may undercount actual suicide deaths. Also important to note is that this article states that accurate data on suicide attempts within the military are not available, meaning that we cannot directly or accurately compare attempts across military and transgender populations.

Importantly, it is worth noting that a 2013 study argued that there may be higher reporting rates of suicidality among LGBT individuals as compared to the general population, and that “[t]he pattern of results showing differences by sexual orientation in suicide attempts, but not deaths by suicide, may reflect the methodological limitations of performing psychological autopsy studies (King et al., 2008), a tendency to over-report attempts among LGBT youth (Savin-Williams, 2001a), or that LGBT youth may, in fact, be more likely to engage in non-lethal suicide attempt behaviors. (pp.438)” Though studies estimate the rate of attempted suicide at 40% for transgender individuals specifically, figures on actual completed suicides by transgender individuals appear more difficult to come by. However, we can logically conclude that, while attempts are extremely high, actual successes are necessarily lower than this 40% figure. Furthermore, uncertainty over the true underlying size of the transgender population in the US makes assessing these rates difficult. A 2016 New York Times article notes that updated data suggests the number of individuals who identify as transgender is double the previously accepted estimate. Accordingly, while the suicidal behavior we see in current studies focusing on transgender populations is indeed alarming, it is not entirely clear that actual rates of suicide are higher for transgender populations than for other populations, and if so, by how much.

One possible response here is that US military are subjected to high-stress and high-risk environments that make these outcomes more likely. It is certainly true that many individuals in the military serve in roles where they place themselves at considerable risk. But transgender people are often at significant risk throughout their entire lives simply because of their identity. Transgender people report high rates of physical and sexual assault. A 2009 meta analysis concluded that “violence against transgender people starts early in life, that transgender people are at risk for multiple types and incidences of violence, and that this threat lasts throughout their lives.” This same study references data collected by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP) showing a substantial increase in recorded hate crimes targeting transgender people between 1997 and 2006, increasing from 44 to 291. As with other types of reporting, like rape, there is reason to suspect a downward bias in these figures, as well as under-reporting actual and attempted crimes targeting transgender people.

To be sure, French is correct in noting that transgender people report alarmingly high levels of suicidality. However, it is also important to recognize that not all transgender individuals are equally at risk for these behaviors and outcomes—personal, social, and cultural factors also contribute to these outcomes. Furthermore, there is evidence that treatment and social support can help to improve these outcomes and reduce risk. One study finds that transgender people who are further along in identity acceptance and transition exhibit less avoidant coping mechanisms—activities like drinking or drug use—and improved outcomes for depression and anxiety. Individuals with better social support, for example, tend to have more positive outcomes when focusing on depression and anxiety. To be clear, this process does not necessarily entail gender reassignment surgery, which the aforementioned RAND study notes may be pursued by a small proportion of transgender soldiers. Ultimately, risk factors are not constant or innate, but the result of situational and social factors that increase risk, and vulnerability to violence and discrimination goes a long way to explaining the negative behaviors that French worries about.

Furthermore, the authors note that prior research has found that societal messaging that reinforces negative perceptions of transgender identity can contribute to these negative outcomes. It would be unreasonable to say that the Trump administration’s policies are solely responsible for this—they are not—but it is also foolish to trivialize their impact. The US government’s decision to turn away individuals who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to serve their country serves as a pretty powerful social signal. To put it differently, imagine that, in an age where we have very low rates of military services relative to the country’s population size, an age where we have been involved in two intense military conflicts and a number of other peripheral conflicts, that you as an individual are willing to take the risk of entering into an organization that is hostile to you as a result of your identifying as a transgender person, and that you are willing to put yourself in harm’s way as a part of your duties to that organization, and the government deems you undesirable.

Closely related to suicidality and mental health problems is the subject of drug abuse. French notes that transgender individuals are more apt to abuse illicit drugs than members of the military. While these figures are accurate on the basis of existing studies, French frames drug abuse in such narrow way as to inflate abuse by transgender individuals. Again, the military as a reference population is critical here. Though abuse of illicit drugs is reported to be lower by service members, the military has also struggled with an increase in the abuse of alcohol and prescription medications by service members at rates that exceed the general population.

Overall, it is far from clear that the behaviors we see in transgender individuals are as substantively distinct from those we see in the military as French claims. There is evidence that both populations engage in high-risk behaviors relative to the underlying civilian population, but there is no clear reason to suspect transgender people to have an especially acute impact on readiness and training by serving openly. The aforementioned RAND study also concludes there is likely to be a negligible impact on readiness and unit cohesion by allowing transgender people to openly serve (p. xii; 39–46). Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, is that we have no sense of comparative rates of suicidality, drug abuse, and other risk-taking behaviors between transgender and non-transgender members of the military. It is not self-evident that the sorts of transgender people who choose to enter the military are going to display the same rates of these behaviors as the broader transgender populations, and French’s argument suggests that transgender soldiers are going to have a negative impact on readiness. It is hard to sustain this line of thinking if transgender soldiers are actually demonstrating equal or lower levels of suicidality and risk-taking behaviors than non-transgender soldiers. This is not to say that these behaviors are acceptable—based on currently available data both groups exhibit high rates of drug abuse and suicidality, and we should work to increase access to treatment and support for members of the military and transgender individuals alike in an effort to reduce negative outcomes. As a part of this process it is also important to recognize that these behaviors are not without causes, but are often the result of trauma and significant stressors. The idea that allowing transgender individuals to openly serve will undermine readiness and cohesion because they are prone to more dangerous or self-destructive behavior seems considerably weaker when we compare his figures to the US military in addition to the general population.

Also important is the idea that French paints a picture of all military personnel as perpetually engaged in intense battlefield combat. Even if we accept the premise that transgender soldiers would somehow undermine battlefield effectiveness, the simple fact of the matter is that not all military personnel are engaged in high-stress combat roles. Modern military operations typically include a large number of support staff. A 2007 report from the Combat Studies Institute at Forth Leavenworth shows that historically the tooth to tail ratio—the number of troops in support and administrative roles relative to combat roles—has been relatively low. That is, a relatively high proportion of troops dedicated to a war effort are in logistical and administrative support roles. To be clear, even some of these roles can be quite dangerous, depending on geographic location relative to war zones, direct handling of munitions, fuels, or other high explosives, etc. But it’s not at all clear how an individual’s transgender identity would adversely impact their ability to carry out these sorts of tasks.

Ultimately, the Trump administration’s ban doesn’t actually get rid of the problem—it will likely just drive it underground. It is too early to get a sense of how the ban will affect recruitment and retention of transgender individuals. It is possible that some individuals already serving will decide to leave the military and that individuals who might have otherwise decided to enter the military will now choose not to. However, it is highly unlikely that this will reduce the number of transgender individuals entering the military to 0. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where, contrary to the Administration’s desires, we actually see an increase in the number of transgender people entering the military without disclosing their transgender status as a means of demonstrating their capabilities and worth.

With respect to capability, French touches on the tangential issue of women taking on combat roles in what appears to be an effort to challenge the idea that transgender people are physically capable of performing the tasks required of them. I won’t actually quibble with the idea that French proposed, which is that, on average, there are basic biological differences between males and females. But this discussion misses a couple of crucial points. First, average differences don’t account for the fact that we are talking about distributions, not two uniform categories. There are certainly going to be women who are more physically fit in strength, speed, and endurance, than some of their male counterparts. What’s at issue here is not that women and men need be perfectly equal in their representation in every role within the military’s ranks. The issue is the principal of opportunities available to men and women. If the distribution of natural physical characteristics means that, given a particular selection criteria, 80% of men qualify for some role, but only 60% of women qualify, then so be it. But women should not be systematically excluded from the opportunity to serve in a particular capacity simply because of their sex. This is not just about advancing some normatively desirable social cause, but it’s just plain stupid from a recruitment and manpower perspective. Why turn away perfectly capable individuals?

A second point here is that French’s whole discussion of male/female biological characteristics is somewhat irrelevant in the context of transgender individuals. Gender identity is not the same thing as sex or sexual preference. Recent coverage of Kristin Beck, a retired Navy SEAL, provides the clearest challenge to this line of thinking. Given Beck’s status as a SEAL, I can’t imagine many would question her patriotism or capabilities. Her status as a transgender person did not prevent her from joining one of the most elite military units in the world. More broadly, the American Medical Association released a statement in response to the Trump administration’s ban, saying that “There is no medically valid reason to exclude transgender individuals from military service.” As with any individuals entering military service, some people will be better suited for particular roles than others as determined by their physical and mental abilities, but excluding individuals on the basis of gender identity seems like a foolish decision.

Finally, there are two broader normative and practical problems with this ban. First, the notion that the United States military is somehow separate from and should not answer to society on questions of inclusion and diversity is pernicious. The view that issues like transgender service are simply expressions of leftist social engineering are not uncommon, and French himself notes at one point that “social justice cannot trump biology”. Yes, the military is a professional organization whose purpose is often to inflict violence on opponents of the Untied States. At the most basic level, as my father used to say, the military’s purpose is to “kill people and break things.” We should have no illusions that death and destruction, undesirable as they may be, are often necessary in the pursuit of our national security and for the defense of American values. But we must resist the temptation to view the military, as well as strategic, operational, and tactical issues, as somehow separate from these deeper values, goals, and beliefs. We must resist the temptation to abdicate our responsibility as a society for our military and how it is used. Our military is not something separate from the rest of us—it is composed of Americans of different sexes, genders, races, ethnicities, and religions, and it is difficult to reconcile how, apart from individual ability, the very organization that is tasked with the ultimate defense of our national existence, freedoms, and values can systematically deny the rights of individuals who enjoy those freedoms and values to help defend them. To do so risks undermining popular support for military institutions.

Second, trite as it might be, Clausewitz’s adage that “war is the extension of politics by other means” holds true even today. The military does not operate in a bubble, and the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped to illustrate that political and social processes are intimately related to what we often think of a “pure” military efforts. Refusing to allow the use oppressive and heavy-handed tactics on the battlefield is not simply liberal sensibilities interfering with the harsh realities of the battlefield. Cruelty and indiscriminate violence can breed the kind of resentment and hatred that will only make our military’s job more difficult, possibly increasing violence aimed at US service personnel. If we promote the practice of such behavior within our own military by discriminating against otherwise capable Americans and tolerating physical and verbal abuse towards these individuals, how can we expect our soldiers to leave those same behaviors behind on the battlefield?

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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