Pentagon’s new transgender policy: Nuanced, sensitive, well-reasoned

Pentagon’s new transgender policy: Nuanced, sensitive, well-reasoned
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On Wednesday the New York Times Editorial Board condemned President TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE’s new military transgender policy as “discriminatory” and “inhumane,” adding it will contribute “immeasurably to the suffering” of the transgender population.

Apparently the Times is unaware discrimination occurs daily in recruiting stations across the United States. It’s required by law. Federal law says the armed services must assure that all entrants be “qualified, effective, and able-bodied.” Lawful, justifiable discrimination ensures that the U.S. military and the service members who compose it, are able to succeed anywhere, anytime.

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Discriminating military entrance criteria have existed since the birth of an American army. In the Civil War, recruits who lacked four front teeth were disqualified because they could not tear open gunpowder packages. The Pentagon transgender policy, as announced last week, is wholly consistent with a long history of evidence-based U.S. military entrance criteria.

First, for those who volunteer to serve in the military, thanks are in order. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population volunteer to join the military, so these patriots deserve the nation’s gratitude for their willingness to serve.

But volunteers must meet certain standards in order to be accepted into service. History of severe mental depression? Disqualifying. History of asthma? Disqualifying. Past suicide attempts? Disqualifying. You get the picture.  

These standards are not arbitrary. On the contrary, the disqualifying conditions have been adjusted and modified over time, based on scrupulously maintained medical data. The goal is to ensure that individuals who join the military can meet the rigorous training requirements and capably serve in the most austere and challenging combat environments without risk to either themselves or their units.

The new policy treats the transgender population no more “inhumanely” than existing entrance criteria treat asthmatics.

The new policy makes a careful and medically-supported distinction between persons who are transgender and those who suffer from gender dysphoria. The former are people whose gender identity differs from their biological sex. The latter is a mental condition defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that afflicts some transgender individuals. People with gender dysphoria experience significant mental anxiety and distress because their gender identity differs from their biological sex.

Significantly, the new policy allows transgender individuals not experiencing gender dysphoria to enlist and serve in the military. This is consistent with the bedrock principle of the Department of Defense that “any eligible individual who can meet the high standards for military service without special accommodation should be permitted to serve.” It also provides the Pentagon with more options to meet its ever-more challenging mission to recruit sufficient numbers of service members.

But for those people experiencing gender dysphoria, the policy returns to the previous, pre-2016 entrance standards, disqualifying them from both entry and retention in the military. The comprehensive study accompanying the policy amply justifies why this is appropriate.  

The Pentagon’s own medical data reflect that, compared to service members as a whole, individuals with gender dysphoria are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and nine times more likely to have mental health encounters. Military life and deployments in particular place exceptional stress on service members; suicide rates among military members already exceed those of the U.S. population. It would be both reckless and detrimental to unit readiness to allow individuals already pre-disposed to mental distress — in this case, those with gender dysphoria — to serve in the military.

Some assert that gender dysphoria is treatable, including with transition surgery and hormones. But as the study accompanying the new policy points out, the available medical data prove that even with often lengthy and costly treatment, individuals who receive gender dysphoria treatment still experience suicide rates far higher than the general population’s.

There is also the issue of medical costs and time lost due to medical treatments. As a matter of existing policy, the military does not admit individuals who will likely need extensive medical treatment. Once again, the new policy is consistent with that precedent.

In uncharacteristically blunt language, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisShanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report Pentagon reporters left in dark as Iran tensions escalate Trump officials slow-walk president's order to cut off Central American aid: report MORE’ study found serious fault with a Rand Corporation study that had created the intellectual underpinning of the Obama administration’s transgender policy. The Pentagon has since determined that the Rand study “failed to analyze the impact at the micro level of allowing gender transition by individuals with gender dysphoria.”

Moreover, it “did not meaningfully address the significant mental health problems that accompany dysphoria,” and “did not examine the potential impact on unit readiness, perceptions of fairness and equity, personnel safety, and reasonable expectations of privacy at the unit.” How this study could have overlooked such fundamental aspects of a significant policy change is unclear.

What is clear is that Secretary Mattis and the Pentagon have produced a thoughtful, nuanced policy supported by clear evidence and fact. This policy strikes the correct balance between allowing qualified volunteers to serve and preventing those whose service might harm either themselves or compromise the effectiveness of the U.S. military.

Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr (ret.) is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.