President Donald Trump late last week ordered the adoption of a new policy on transgender individuals and military service. The policy, proposed by Defense Secretary James Mattis in a memo last month, restricts military service, but with narrow exceptions, to individuals able to serve according to their biological gender and with no history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
The Mattis memo included a 44-page study prepared by the Pentagon on the potential costs, risks, and benefits to the military in allowing transgender recruits and transgender troops to remain on active duty.
The decision comes after years of back-and-forth that started in June 2016, when then–Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the Pentagon would begin allowing transgender individuals to serve openly in the military. A succession of memos, tweets, announcements, and court decisions kept the issue in limbo until now.
In short, the new policy disqualifies individuals who require or have already had sex-change surgery, as well as individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria or those with discomfort about their biological sex. The policy creates exceptions for current transgender troops who have not yet undergone surgery, were medically stable for 36 months in their biological sex before joining, and are able to deploy. It also exempts current transgender troops diagnosed with gender dysphoria since the Carter policy took effect and prior to the start of the Mattis policy, allowing them to serve as their preferred gender and to receive medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria.
For perspective, the study found around 1 percent of the military—8,980 service members—identify as transgender, and 937 have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria since June 30, 2016.
Critics have lambasted the Mattis policy as discriminatory and said it hearkens back to the military’s previous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for homosexual troops. They argue the ruling will unjustly force transgender military members to hide in the shadows and constantly fear discharge.
But the policy is consistent with the Department of Defense approach to a host of other medical and psychological conditions, according to Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation and a former lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, where he served for 36 years.
He told me it is integral to military readiness that every person in uniform is prepared to deploy to difficult conditions. The military has policies on everything from diabetes and high blood pressure to severe depression and obesity. This policy is no different.
“Everyone in the military has to be able to shoulder their weight,” Spoehr said. “There are no desk jobs or couch jobs.”
Whereas the Carter policy started with the assumption that transgender individuals should be able to serve if they want and created accommodations from there, the Mattis policy started with the principal that transgender individuals, like any others, should be allowed to serve only if they meet the military’s standards.
The new policy is on hold because of temporary court injunctions issued last year that require the military maintain open policies on recruiting and retention.
The Justice Department said in a statement late last Friday it would defend the Pentagon’s authority to “implement personnel policies they have determined are necessary to best defend our nation.”
Critics maintain they will fight the new policy in court, but Spoehr believes it is battle-ready.
“The policy is crafted so that you can hold it up to the light and see it can withstand legal challenge,” he said.