Divided We Fall: Why the Ban on Transgender Military Service Will Harm U.S. Security

Yesterday, President Trump announced via Twitter that “the United States Government will not accept or allow [t]ransgender individuals in any capacity in the U.S. [m]ilitary.” The White House explained its decision as an attempt to avoid “the tremendous medical costs and disruption” that including transgender people in military service would entail. However, banning transgender individuals from the armed forces will neither save significant taxpayer dollars nor make our military more effective. In fact, it will likely do the opposite.

First, let’s examine the costs related to providing medical care for transgender service members. Though some argue that allowing transgender individuals to serve could “make the military a magnet for people seeking ‘gender reassignment’ procedures at taxpayer expense,” there is no data to back up this claim. In fact, only a fraction of the up to 15,000 transgender persons currently on active duty are likely to seek transition-related treatment like mental health care, hormone replacement therapy, or surgery. Furthermore, the costs of providing such services are nominal as a percentage of military spending. Extending transition-related health care coverage to transgender individuals would only impact the military’s total health care expenditures for active duty personnel by between $2.4 and $8.4 million on an annual basis—a 0.04 to 0.13 percent increase. This out of nearly $800 billion the United States spends on defense and security annually.

Similarly, available evidence does not support the notion that integrating openly transgender persons undermines military readiness. A review of survey data and private health insurance claims found that less than 2 percent of transgender service members are prone to seek gender-confirming surgery each year. Out of those who do, only about 10 transgender service members a year would be rendered unfit to serve for medical reasons. A RAND study found that neither hormone treatment nor mental health considerations are impediments to the deployability of transgender troops, with less than 0.0015 percent of the total available labor-years affected by transition-related medical treatment. These findings led experts at the Palm Center to determine that “there is no valid medical reason for the ban on transgender service members to continue.”

There are also profound benefits to allowing transgender individuals in the U.S. military. Transgender Americans have a proven record of serving our country and want to continue their service. There are an estimated 150,000 transgender Americans who have served in the U.S. armed forces, with approximately 15,000 serving today across all kinds of units. Transgender service in the U.S. military is not new—studies date back to the 1980s—but their work and sacrifice, like those of their fellow service members, are only now being acknowledged. According to the Williams Institute, “individuals assigned female at birth are nearly three times more likely than all adult women and those assigned male at birth are 1.6 times more likely than all adult men to serve.” A report from 2016 highlighted challenges that the Department of Defense (DoD) is likely to face recruiting young adults as the economy expands and recruitment budgets shrink. In this environment, the key consideration should be whether or not an individual can meet DoD’s rigorous standards and is equipped for the job. In the words of Senator John McCain, “[a]ny American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving.”

Moreover, allowing transgender individuals to serve openly in the military can have positive effects on recruitment, retention, and unit cohesion. Though the data are not available from the military, a study on the impact of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)–supportive employment policies and workplace climates on business outcomes found that these policies were strongly associated with improved health and greater job commitment and satisfaction, not just for LGBT employees but also for the whole workforce. Likewise, in the 18 countries, including Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, that allow transgender people to serve openly in the military, foreign military commanders report improvements in overall force cohesion. This contradicts the White House’s assertion that including transgender personnel in the U.S. armed forces “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion.”

Finally, the U.S. military should reflect the country it represents and serves. The civilian-military divide in the United States is growing deeper, with only 0.4 percent of the total population in service. This gap is further perpetuated by negative perceptions held by civilians of the military’s treatment of minorities. A concerted effort to expand the recruitment pool to incorporate ethnic minorities, members of all socioeconomic classes, women, and LGBT individuals would be an important step to bridging this divide.

Evidence from the United States and other countries that have included transgender personnel in the armed forces point to the many advantages of these policies. Far from being a burden, embracing service members that reflect the diversity of American society helps with recruitment, retention, readiness, and cohesion. Banning transgender persons from the U.S. military not only reverses hard-won progress in making the military reflect our society, it also jeopardizes U.S. security by preventing the military from recruiting, retaining, and deploying the most capable and committed service members, solely because of their gender identity.

Shannon Green is a senior fellow and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Julie Snyder is program manager and research associate in the CSIS Human Rights Initiative.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Julie Snyder

Shannon N. Green