Trump's Ban Puts Serving Transgender Troops in Limbo

FILE - In this Aug. 28, 2015 file photo, Transgender soldier Capt. Jennifer Peace holds a flag as she stands for a photo near her home in Spanaway, Wash. (Drew Perine/The News Tribune via AP)
Military.com |

President Donald Trump's ban Wednesday on transgender people serving in the military strongly suggested that thousands of transgender troops now in the ranks could be forced out, triggering a rash of lawsuits from advocacy groups.

Trump's Twitter announcement of the ban stated the U.S. "will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military."

By his action, Trump "has put a target on the backs of the more than 15,000 transgender troops proudly serving in our military" who could be subject to discharge, said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign advocacy group for the LGBTQ community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). HRC also estimates that there are about 134,000 transgender veterans.

The Pentagon had no immediate guidance for transgender individuals who have committed to enlist or are currently serving.

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"We will continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the commander-in-chief on transgender individuals serving in the military," said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis. "We will provide revised guidance to the department in the near future."

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union said it is looking at legal options to challenge the Trump ban and asked transgender troops in the ranks to contact it.

"This is an outrageous and desperate action," said Joshua Block, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's LGBT & HIV Project.

OutServe-SLDN, an LGBT military advocacy group, said it is preparing court challenges. "We are committed to transgender service members," the group said in a statement. "We are going to fight for them as hard as they are fighting for the country, and we're going to start by taking the fight to Donald Trump in the Federal Court."

Supporters of LGBTQ rights in Congress denounced Trump's decision.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, noted that Trump's ban came on the July 26 anniversary of President Harry S Truman's 1948 order desegregating the U.S. armed forces.

On the anniversary, "President Trump is choosing to retreat in the march toward equality," said Reed, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger. "In the land of the free and the home of the brave, every American who is brave enough to serve their country should be free to do so."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, a member of SASC, and others said they would push for legislation to overturn the Trump ban.

Many Republican lawmakers, consumed by the battle in Congress on health care, did not immediately comment on the Trump ban, but Tony Perkins, a Marine veteran and president of the Family Research Council, praised the president's decision.

"I applaud President Trump for keeping his promise to return to military priorities -- and not continue the social experimentation of the Obama era that has crippled our nation's military," Perkins said.

Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who last summer allowed transgender troops to serve openly and directed the military to develop plans on recruitment, said it is Trump who is engaged in social experimentation.

"To choose service members on other grounds than military qualifications is social policy and has no place in our military," Carter said in a statement.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, echoed the criticism of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that Trump should not be making policy in Tweets.

Graham called for a Senate hearing in which military leaders could testify on the fallout from the Trump ban and whether it would result in the discharge of transgender individuals now serving.

"We need to have a hearing, not a Tweet," Graham said. "Let the military tell us about the policy change -- what it is, does it affect the people currently serving, and what is the recommendation."

In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Tom Rice, R-South Carolina, echoed the previous complaints of a number of Republican lawmakers that the military should not pay for the surgeries of transgender troops.

"Military guidelines on the sex of its personnel, like all of its guidelines, should be designed to produce the most effective fighting force to defend our country -- period," Rice said.

"I leave it to the president and people in charge of the military how best to define that goal. However, I strongly oppose the obligation of the government to fund procedures for sexual reassignment or any other elected surgery," Rice said.

Defense Department officials have said that there are as many as 250 service members in the process of transitioning to their preferred genders or who have been approved to formally change gender within the Pentagon's personnel system.

Although the Human Rights Campaign has estimated that there are currently about 15,500 transgender troops in the ranks, the Defense Department has repeatedly declined to give a number.

A Rand Corp. study estimated that there are between 2,500 and 7,000 transgender service members on active duty, and an additional 1,500 to 4,000 in the Reserves and National Guard.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.