A proposed Pentagon policy on transgender troops and potential recruits is discriminatory and would diminish military readiness and lethality if implemented, a panel of transgender service members told a congressional subcommittee Wednesday.
Testifying before Congress in civilian clothing because they were restricted under a Defense Department policy that limits uniform wear for non-military functions, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann and Hospitalman 3rd Class Akira Wyatt, Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King and Army Capts. Alivia Stehlik and Jennifer Peace told House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee members they have encountered little pushback from their units since transitioning and consider themselves highly effective leaders and members.
They said arguments against transgender troops serving, which include a perceived negative impact on unit cohesion and increased costs to the military health system, are specious.
Stehlik, a physical therapist who graduated from West Point in 2008 and served six years as an infantry officer, said her unit would not have deployed with a physical therapist to Afghanistan if she hadn't been serving.
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The officer, who earned a Ranger tab and transitioned to being a woman in 2016, said the unit's assigned physical therapist had become non-deployable, so she volunteered to go. She treated more than 1,700 people during a nine-month deployment with 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
"My transition, as well as those of others, has dramatically increased the readiness and lethality of every branch of the armed forces," Stehlik said. "Has my transition made soldiers uncomfortable? Absolutely not. [On deployment], they opened up to me. ... I asked them why, and they said they valued my authenticity, my courage in being myself. It allowed them to do the same."
Peace, an intelligence officer who enlisted in the Army at age 19 and later was encouraged to attend Officer Candidate School, said transgender personnel simply want to serve their country.
"Readiness and morale were two of my primary concerns as a company commander. I would be the first person to kick out a transgender service member if they are not able to meet the standards," she said. "There should absolutely be no adjustment of standards for trans people. All we are asking for is the opportunity to meet and be held to those exact same standards."
The hearing, called by subcommittee chairwoman Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, came as a Pentagon policy on transgender service has been placed on hold pending injunctions related to litigation over the proposal.
The policy, drafted in February 2018 by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, effectively would overturn one instituted in 2016 that allowed transgender troops to transition to the opposite gender while in the military and serve openly.
While the Pentagon argues that the proposed policy does not bar transgender members from serving, its restrictions effectively would keep individuals who want to serve as anything but their birth gender out of the armed forces.
Panel members also said it would reduce opportunities for individuals who are currently serving. They would be allowed to remain, but advancement opportunities would close, they said.
According to the proposed policy, those with a history of gender dysphoria -- a medical diagnosis for those who experience significant distress or difficulty with their biological gender -- would be disqualified from serving unless they have been stable in their birth gender for three years before joining the military. Individuals who require or have undergone gender transition also would be disqualified from service, according to the proposal.
Retired Air Force Gen. James Stewart, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Navy Vice Adm. Raquel Bono, director of the Defense Health Agency, told the subcommittee that the policy is needed because gender dysphoria is a medical condition incompatible with military service. They added that it can lead to other medical problems, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideation, which also are harmful to readiness.
"The department has concluded, based on its best military judgment, that sustaining the 2016 policy for the long term would degrade military effectiveness," Stewart said.
"With our transgender service members, their behavioral health visits are 22 per person, as opposed to two [visits] for non-gender dysphoric service members. We also see higher rates of suicidal ideation. We take these things into consideration as we are looking at the data," Bono said.
Military leaders, including members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went on record last year as saying they had not seen any negative impact on morale or readiness following implementation of the 2016 policy.
Reports vary on the number of transgender individuals currently serving in the armed services, but a 2016 Defense Department survey found that 8,900 active-duty troops identified as transgender.
According to Stewart, 937 service members have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
The DoD has spent roughly $8 million on transgender care since the 2016 policy was instituted, including $2 million for surgeries, such as breast reduction, hysterectomies and testicle removal.
Speier called the transgender service members who testified "courageous" and said she would work to ensure that they can continue serving.
"I feel strongly that any transgender person who can meet occupational standards should be allowed to serve in the armed forces. I believe that the transgender policy is discriminatory, unconstitutional and self-defeating," she said.
Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, also thanked the troops for their service, praising them for their work and for meeting or exceeding military standards. He said that not everyone who wants to serve in the military can "meet the stringent medical and behavioral health standards needed to maintain a ready and resilient force."
However, he added, "it only makes sense that any individual who can meet these standards and is otherwise qualified should be allowed to serve."