The Self-Destructive Republican War on Trans Military Members

The Self-Destructive Republican War on Trans Military Members

Although transgender individuals account for only 0.6 percent of the
population, they are disproportionately represented in the armed forces. In 2018, one organization estimated that there were roughly 15,000 transgender individuals in the military, and another study has found that transgender people are twice as likely to serve as other Americans. Indeed, some consider the U.S. military the largest employer of transgender individuals in the country.

Nevertheless, even though the Pentagon faces a recruiting crisis, House Republicans targeted transgender service members during the recent debate over the defense authorization legislation, adding amendments aimed at preventing transgender individuals serving in the military from accessing care. 

Critics worry that these measures could negatively affect military preparedness and morale, while conservatives argue that supporting transgender service members would weaken readiness. That GOP lawmakers, who style themselves as pro-military, made such a push on what is generally an uncontroversial annual piece of legislation illustrates the extent to which Republicans have made transgender Americans political targets in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

“The move on the federal level to pass this bill with these amendments
is just a confirmation of what we know to be true across the board,
which is that transgender [individuals] are being targeted in
unprecedented ways,” said Carl Charles, a senior attorney in the
southern regional office of Lambda Legal, a legal organization focused
on protecting LGBTQ rights.

The House passed its version of the country’s annual defense
authorization bill largely along party lines on Friday, after Republicans saddled it with
amendments embodying the belief that the U.S.
military’s greatest threat is the culture war: what they refer to as “woke” policies. The amendments related to transgender individuals would
prohibit coverage of gender-affirming surgeries and hormone therapies
for service members, prevent coverage of gender-affirming care for the
children of members of the military, and bar schools on military bases
from “purchasing and having pornographic and radical gender ideology
books in their libraries.”

All but four Democrats
opposed the traditionally bipartisan legislation, turned off by amendments on abortion, diversity
efforts, and transgender rights. The Senate is scheduled to start debate on its version of the bill this week, and its Democratic majority is unlikely to adopt the anti-LGBTQ policies. Whatever compromise legislation the two chambers agree upon is not likely to include the controversial riders either, for the same reason.

But the House-passed amendments targeting transgender individuals illustrate a larger pattern: Republicans at all levels of government and all across the country are targeting transgender individuals through legislation. State GOP lawmakers have introduced more than 220 bills specifically targeting transgender and nonbinary individuals, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. More than 70 of those bills have passed this year, including 15 banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

At the federal level, GOP members of Congress
have proposed other legislation targeting transgender
individuals in the military and beyond. This week, Senator J.D. Vance introduced legislation
to make providing gender-affirming care for minors a felony. In February, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Jim Banks drafted
legislation that would disqualify transgender individuals from serving
in the military, functionally reinstating former President Donald Trump’s ban.

“They have decided that this is a political issue that they can use to
scapegoat a segment of the American public, [and] that they think
appeals to their base,” said Davis Stacy, the vice president of government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign. He specifically sees this as an effort to stave off primary challenges from the right. 

It may be more than simply base-stoking politics, however. “On its face, this is an issue that not only gets
support from conservatives, but also finds acceptance across a more broad
cross-section of the public,” The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter wrote in February, noting that it “lure[s] Democrats into a fight on
terrain that is more challenging for them.” She added: “Democrats would rather
fight Republicans on issues where they have a noted advantage, like protecting
Social Security and Medicare, than on things like gender identity where their
coalition is divided.”

Indeed, the politics around transgender rights are complicated by public opinion remaining nuanced on the topic. A 2022 poll
by the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Americans believe
transgender individuals should be protected from discrimination—even as
60 percent also said they believe gender identity is determined at
birth. That same poll found that 36 percent of Americans believe that
society has not gone far enough in accepting transgender individuals,
while 38 percent believe society has gone too far.

A recent Gallup poll
also found that support for transgender individuals serving in the
military dropped from 71 percent in 2019 to 66 percent in 2021, with independents leading the decline. Support for
transgender rights in general typically falls along party lines, although there is also a generational gap.

Stacy contended that despite widespread campaigns against transgender
rights in recent years, the dip in public support for anti-discrimination measures has
not been precipitous. “Clearly this sort of anti-trans messaging is
going to have some impact. But given the degree of it happening, we’re
not really seeing significant shifts” in public opinion, Stacy argued.
Although he said he was “very optimistic in the medium to long term”
that support for transgender rights would increase, Stacy also
acknowledged that “this wave of state and federal legislation is
certainly causing harm and marginalization.”

Even though
the amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act targeting transgender service members will
likely not become law, they highlight the challenges such
Americans face. Moreover, a future Republican
president could decide to reinstate the Trump administration’s ban on transgender
service members, which President Joe Biden reversed
with an executive order shortly after taking office. Trump had, in turn, imposed
the ban three years after President Barack Obama allowed transgender
service members to access gender-affirming care.

Unless transgender
service members are permitted by law to serve in the military, this
flip-flop in policies could continue for the foreseeable
future—particularly if Republicans continue to see policies targeting
transgender Americans as politically salient. And the next time
Republicans control the White House and Congress, they could enshrine this year’s controversial amendments in law. “That’s an incredible risk,” said Lambda Legal’s Charles, noting how many of the
candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have been vocal in their support for policies targeting transgender individuals.

Political considerations aside, the campaign against trans service members raises serious questions about military readiness even as the armed forces
face a recruitment crisis. The Army missed its enlistment goals by 25 percent (roughly 15,000 soldiers) last fiscal year and is expected to lag by a similar number this year, while the Navy and Air Force also face shortfalls in the thousands. Younger Americans are more likely than older ones to accept
transgender individuals, so targeting LGBTQ persons at a time when the Pentagon is having trouble appealing to young adults could backfire. And parents of transgender children who would be affected by bans on
gender-affirming care may also think twice before reenlisting.

“It’s sort of insulting to think that
we’re willing to serve in the military but there are folks out there
that want to take away our access to care,” said LeAnne Withrow,  » …
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