A debate in Congress over openly serving transgender troops is taking another turn Monday as a Democratic bill is introduced opposing an earlier proposal by Republicans that would force them to go back to serving under their birth sex.
The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., would ensure anyone who meets occupational standards can serve in the military regardless of race, color, national origin, religion or sex, which the bill specifies includes gender identity and sexual orientation.
Transgender military service -- and transgender rights more broadly across the U.S. -- remains politically contentious more than two years after President Joe Biden signed an executive order lifting a ban on their service put in place by his predecessor Donald Trump. The previous administration argued open service by an estimated 8,980 active-duty transgender troops would hurt military effectiveness and morale.
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"Young people listen and hear what their political leaders say and internalize it, and I want young trans kids and LGBTQ+ kids across the country to know that they are respected and loved and deserve to be wherever they want to be," Jacobs, whose brother identifies as transgender, said in an interview with Military.com.
The bill, which has 22 Democratic co-sponsors, faces an uphill climb in passing while Republicans control the House, but Jacobs said reintroducing it offers a message of support to transgender Americans.
Republicans last month introduced a bill that would disqualify most transgender people who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria from serving in the military.
Gender dysphoria is the medical term for the feeling of distress caused by the misalignment between someone's gender identity and sex assigned at birth. But the American Medical Association maintains gender dysphoria is not a "medically valid" reason to disqualify someone from military service.
The Republican bill, from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., would go further than the Trump administration's ban by requiring transgender service members who have already come out to go back to serving as their sex assigned at birth. The Trump administration's policy allowed those who came out under the Obama administration policy to continue serving openly.
"Biden has turned our military into a woke social experiment," Rubio said in a statement last month, echoing other Republican criticism that the Biden administration is overly fixated on social justice issues. "It is a stupid way to go about protecting our nation. We need to spend more time thinking about how to counter threats like China, Russia, and North Korea and less time thinking about pronouns."
Biden quickly reversed Trump's ban when he took office in 2021, and transgender troops are able to serve openly now, with no clear evidence that it is a detriment to the military.
But advocates for open service fear a future president could flip the policy back to a ban again if protections aren't enshrined in law. LGBTQ advocates estimate that nearly 15,000 transgender people serve in the military -- far higher than the Defense Department's own estimate of 8,980.
Jacobs' bill, which supporters have dubbed the "Truman Amendment" in a nod to President Harry Truman's 1948 order to racially desegregate the military, was introduced in previous years by now-retired Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif.
In 2019, it passed the House as an amendment to that year's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, though it was later taken out of the final version of the bill that became law.
At the time, 10 Republicans voted in support of the amendment. All but two of those Republicans are no longer in Congress, and one of the two who are still in, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., has since become one of the party's harshest critics of the Biden administration and social justice in the military.
Despite the changed landscape, Jacobs said she's hopeful her bill could still get bipartisan support -- and that she's also worried the Rubio and Banks legislation will gain steam.
Jacobs wouldn't say whether she will offer her bill as an amendment to the NDAA, the annual must-pass military authorization bill, saying she is discussing strategy with other House and Senate Democrats.
House Republicans have promised to allow all lawmakers to offer amendments on the floor, in contrast to recent years when the House Rules Committee decided which amendments got floor votes. It's unclear whether that promise will hold for a mammoth bill such as the NDAA, which typically attracts thousands of proposed amendments.
An open amendment process could allow Jacobs to get a vote on her bill -- or Republicans to hold a vote on the transgender ban bill.
"It's an important thing to do for our national security because we're already having incredible recruitment and retention issues, and the last thing we should be doing is telling people who are otherwise qualified to join the military that they shouldn't join it," said Jacobs, who is reintroducing the bill days before the annual Transgender Day of Visibility on Friday.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
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