Groups that advocate for LGBT people in the military are gearing up for another fight to keep an Obama-era policy in place on transgender recruits.
Transgender troops already in the military have been able to serve openly since then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter lifted a ban in June 2016. But under the policy Carter crafted, transgender recruits haven’t been allowed to enlist pending the end of a one-year implementation period.
That day comes July 1, but advocates fear Defense Secretary James Mattis will push the deadline back indefinitely.
“What’s so sad about hearing these arguments is that Secretary Mattis and the Pentagon have seemed like the one place in the executive branch where honesty and evidence-based policy and adult decision-making are still the name of the game,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center.
If Mattis delays implementation, “that’s really a signal where evidence-based approaches may be over,” Belkin added.
In early May, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work sent a memo calling for the services to submit their plans for accepting transgender recruits by July 1. The memo said there’s no intention of changing the policy, but left a sliver of wiggle room.
“The personnel policies of this department are designed to enhance the warfighting readiness and lethality of the force that protects our country,” Work wrote, as first reported by USA Today. “We do not intend to reconsider prior decisions unless they cause readiness problems that could lessen our ability to fight, survive and win on the battlefield.”
But since the memo, senior leaders in the military have been voicing lingering concerns about the transgender policy and asking for a delay in its implementation, Military Times reported Thursday. The Army and the Marine Corps have been the most vocal about a delay, the paper added.
The prospect of delaying the acceptance of transgender recruits is the latest concern for LGBT troops since President Trump’s election.
Advocates were worried almost immediately after the election that the Trump administration would roll back the transgender policy, citing what they view as anti-LGBT policies backed by Vice President Pence and chief strategist Steve Bannon, among others.
Since it’s not a law, the policy can be changed unilaterally.
There was also concern when Mattis was named Defense secretary. Mattis has previously criticized civilian leaders with a “progressive agenda” for imposing “social change” on the military.
During his confirmation hearing, Mattis committed to upholding his predecessor’s policies -- unless a service chief brings him evidence they are having negative effects.
“I believe that right now, the policies that are in effect — unless the service chief brings something to me where there has been a problem that has been proven — then I’m not going in with the idea that I am going to review these and right away, start rolling something back,” he said in January.
But new concerns arose in February when it was revealed the Pentagon had quietly rolled backed a policy that allowed transgender students at Defense Department schools to use the bathroom for the gender they identify with. Instead, school principals will decide what to do on a case-by-case basis.
Worries reached a fever pitch when Trump announced his choice for Army secretary, Mark Green. Green had said that “transgender is a disease,” one among many controversial statements.
Advocates launched a fierce campaign against Green and claimed victory when he withdrew his nomination from consideration last month.
Now LGBT groups are gearing up for the next fight, which they expect to be over transgender recruits.
Under the plan set out in the Obama administration, transgender people wishing to join the military would be allowed to enlist if a doctor certifies they have been stable in their identified gender for 18 months. Further, the Pentagon would review the 18-month wait period within two years to make sure it’s based on up-to-date science and lessons learned about the policy up to that point.
Those who opposed allowing transgender troops to serve openly argued the Pentagon did not sufficiently study whether doing so would affect readiness, arguments they are renewing now that Mattis faces a decision on recruits.
Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, said Mattis should take as much time as he needs to make a decision regardless of the July 1 deadline.
The yearlong study done by the Obama administration prior to the policy change looked less at readiness and more about how to implement the change, Spoehr said.
Spoehr stressed that he’s not advocating for keeping transgender troops out of the military, just taking more time to study the readiness effects.
“I think there’s an opportunity to have a fact-based look at this,” he said. “There is no rush. There is nobody being harmed.”
Another reason Spoehr said a delay might be necessary is because the Trump administration has yet to choose an undersecretary of Defense for personnel, who would be the go-to person for such a review.
Belkin, of the Palm Center, called the readiness argument “phony.” His organization will soon release a report that tracked about two dozen transgender troops since last year and found that the new policy has made it easier for them to do their jobs and promoted readiness with no disruptions, he said.
He also highlighted a RAND Corp report commissioned by the Pentagon last year that predicted “a minimal impact on readiness from allowing transgender personnel to serve openly.”
“Last year, the chiefs said inclusion would promote readiness. They were part of the yearlong process, and they agreed that inclusion helps the military,” Belkin said.
LGBT groups are vowing to make their case.
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, said it would be “unconscionable” to delay accepting transgender recruits. Still, she’s hopeful Mattis will continue the policy as planned.
"It would be unconscionable to reverse course now and continue to force transgender recruits to hide their gender identity in order to enter the military,” she said in a statement.
Broadway-Mack said there are already "thousands of brave transgender men and women openly and proudly serving our nation today."
“We are hopeful that Secretary Mattis understands this fact," she continued. "It is crucially important that he move forward with the timeline and implement the final piece of this policy allowing anyone who is qualified and willing to serve, regardless of their gender identity."