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Trading  | August 30, 2017

The approximately 15,000 transgender servicemembers can breathe a sigh of relief – for now, at least.

Defense Secretary James Mattis announced on Tuesday that trans soldiers will be allowed to remain in the military pending the results of a study conducted by a panel of experts. The news, which was first reported by USA Today, follows President Donald Trump’s signing last week of a memorandum officially prohibiting individuals who identify as transgender from joining the military.  In that memorandum, Trump granted Mattis and the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security (which includes the US Coast Guard) wide latitude to decide how trans servicemembers should be treated.

The policy shift, which Trump first announced via Twitter last month, reverses an Obama-era decision, made shortly before he left office, that allowed trans individuals to service openly for the first time.

Mattis said the current policy of allowing trans individuals who are currently serving to finish out their assignments will remain in place, unless the panel recommends that it be reversed.

“Once the panel reports its recommendations and following my consultation with the secretary of Homeland Security, I will provide my advice to the president concerning implementation of his policy direction,” Mattis said in the statement. “In the interim, current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place.”

His decision will give the Pentagon more time to work out the details of allowing trans individuals to serve, like determining whether the VA should pay for gender-reassignment surgery. 

“Mattis’ move buys time for the Pentagon to determine how and if it will allow thousands of transgender troops to continue to serve, whether they will receive medical treatment, or how they will be discharged.”

Contrary to the perception, this decision does not signal that Mattis agrees with Obama’s directive that all trans people be allowed to serve. Mattis, as USA Today notes, has “little tolerance for policies that detract from military readiness.” Back in June, he delayed the Pentagon’s plan to accept new transgender troops to allow more time to study the effect of transgender recruitment on the US’s ability to fight (and win) wars.

When Obama first lifted the ban, the Pentagon outlined its plan for providing medical coverage to trans soldiers. The plan mandated that the VA should cover gender reassignment surgery if it was deemed medically necessary.

Trump claimed that the military wouldn’t pay for these surgeries when he first announced his decision to reinstate the ban.



A RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon last year found that trans troops would have a “negligible” impact on military readiness, according to USA Today.

“Last year, the Pentagon commissioned a study by the non-partisan RAND Corp. to examine the effects on military readiness of allowing transgender troops to serve openly and the cost of providing them medical treatment. The study estimated that a few to several thousand transgender troops are on the active duty force of 1.3 million. Researchers found that paying for their health care needs would amount to about $8 million per year and their effect on readiness would be negligible.”

As we’ve previously reported, available data suggest that trans people serve in the military at rates well above the national average. Though the data is sparse, studies estimate that trans men and women are anywhere from two- to five-times more likely to join the military as their cisgender (nontrans) counterparts.

Trans service members and veterans offer a variety of explanations for this disparity. For some, the military uniform functions as gender camouflage—a way to forestall uncomfortable questions from friends, family, or spouses. For others, joining the armed forces offers financial security and community to a group that is disproportionately denied both.

Contrary to what progressives may believe, the reality of whether trans individuals should be allowed to openly serve is a complex one. To better accomodate trans servicemembers, the military needs to develop guidelines not just relating to their medical care, but to a host of other issues affecting both their well-being, and the well-being of their fellow soldiers. Whatever Mattis’s panel ultimately decides, at least it will be an evidence-based decision.

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