Trump transgender ban mirrors fight over HIV-infected troops

Trump transgender ban mirrors fight over HIV-infected troops
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President Trump’s move to ban transgender people from the military is not the first such attempt to expel a specific group of people from its ranks.

In an eerily similar page of history from more than 20 years ago, a group of conservative lawmakers attempted to oust the roughly 1,049 service members infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

That ban, though temporarily signed into law in 1996, did not have the backing of then-President Clinton, military leaders and the majority of Congress, and lawmakers quickly moved to overturn the provision the same year it was signed.

The episode may offer a glimpse into how Trump’s transgender ban will play out in Washington.

The White House announced late Friday afternoon that Trump signed a presidential memo prohibiting the military from enlisting transgender people and from using funds to pay for gender transition-related surgery.

For the estimated 2,500 to 8,800 transgender troops currently serving on active duty, Defense Secretary James Mattis has six months to determine whether to kick them out or keep them.

Mattis late Tuesday said that in the meantime, transgender service members will be allowed to continue serving pending the results from a "panel of experts." 

"Our focus must always be on what is best for the military’s combat effectiveness leading to victory on the battlefield," Mattis said in a statement. "To that end, I will establish a panel of experts serving within the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to provide advice and recommendations on the implementation of the president’s direction."

Trump's memo puts an official stamp on his Twitter announcement in late July, when he tweeted that the military “will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity” because of the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” they could cause.

Twenty-two years earlier, in 1995, a conservative lawmaker made a similar argument concerning HIV-infected service members.

Then-Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) introduced the HIV ban for the fiscal year 1996 defense budget, contending that having HIV-positive service members in the military compromised the nation's combat readiness.

Under Defense Department policy from 1985, those with HIV couldn’t enlist or serve in combat or overseas. Dornan — backed by Sens. Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTop Democrats request meeting with intel chief over sharing of classified info Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war NSA deletes scores of call records over ‘technical irregularities’ MORE (R-Ind.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) — argued this would affect the military’s ability to fight.

Coats, now Trump’s director of national intelligence, was a leading supporter of a ban on openly gay members of the military and helped write the 1994 “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which was eventually repealed in 2010.

“During a time of drastically declining defense resources, including number of personnel, we need each and every member of our military to be worldwide deployable,” Dornan, the chairman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, said at the time. “How can we afford to retain those who cannot perform all military duties?”

Less than one-fifth of all service members on limited assignment had HIV at the time, according to The New York Times. Members infected with HIV were allowed to remain on active duty in the U.S. as long as they were fit, with periodic medical monitoring of the virus.

Under the bill, the Defense Department would need to begin removing infected service members within six months of the document’s signature.

After initial resistance, the HIV provision did make it into the final 1996 Department of Defense Authorization bill signed by Clinton.

Clinton vetoed the first attempt at the document in part because of the ban provision. After Republicans refused to budge on the HIV issue, however, military leaders urged the president to sign in order to gain what they deemed vital national defense provisions.

Upon signing the bill on Feb. 11, 1996, Clinton called the HIV language “blatantly discriminatory.” He promised he wouldn’t enforce it and would even work with Congress “to repeal this provision before a single service member is discharged from the service.”

A day prior, Clinton had stood alongside former Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Magic Johnson when ordering the Justice Department not to enforce or defend the legislation in court.

The law didn’t stand long. House and Senate leadership turned against the provision after it became clear Pentagon leadership didn’t support it, and in April that year, Congress voted to pass the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1996, which contained language repealing Dornan’s HIV ban.

Then-Defense Secretary William Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili denounced the HIV ban as unfair. 

“Discharging service members deemed fit for duty would waste the Government's investment in the training of these individuals and be disruptive to the military programs in which they play an integral role,” Perry and Shalikashvili said in a joint statement.

More than two decades later, military officials are now evaluating the argument for Trump’s transgender ban.

A Pentagon spokesman on Monday said the department had not yet determined whether transgender persons in the military adversely impacts lethality, readiness and unit cohesion.

“I don’t have an answer and I think that is one of the things that will be looked at as we move forward,” Army Col. Robert Manning told reporters.

Much like with the 1995 provision, the new White House guidance does not have solid backing from top Pentagon leaders.

Earlier this month, several Pentagon leaders made it known they did not fully stand behind Trump’s Twitter announcement, including Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.

And just as Dornan’s provision faced strong opposition from fellow lawmakers who believed the real goal of the language was to remove homosexuals from the military, Trump's memo has come up against fierce resistance from some members of Congress who consider it discriminatory. On Tuesday, more than 140 House Democrats urged the president to reconsider the ban, slamming the president's claim that transgender service members are a hindrance to the U.S. military's effectiveness and cast the ban as unconstitutional. 

On the other side of the aisle, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Friday said it “would be a step in the wrong direction to force currently serving transgender individuals to leave the military solely on the basis of their gender identity” rather than medical and readiness standards.

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will step in to bar the looming transgender service member ban with congressional language, as they did with the HIV-infected service members in 1996.

In the next six months, however, "current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place," Mattis said in his statement.