By: Jenna Spinelle/TRT Reporter—
BOSTON—As the fate of President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender service members hangs in the balance, the uncertainty is causing the community to hold its breath until a final decision is announced in February.
“Uncertainty is a terrible thing for people, in part because it causes chronic and ongoing stress along with an expectation of rejection and fear of the unknown,” said Jeremy Goldbach, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern California.
In the meantime, trans veterans are also speaking out against the ban and seeking support from each other as they prepare for what might lie ahead.
“We’re all pissed off about it,” said Rebecca Jeen Mcdonald, a trans vet living in Boston. “What’s going to stop them from doing it to other groups? They are going to open up a major can of worms, not just for the transgender community but for any other minority who might want want to serve.”
The ban first gained national attention over the summer when President Trump tweeted that the U.S. would no longer allow trans people to serve in the military, reversing a policy the Obama administration put into place in 2016.
That order was not enforced and the fate of trans service members rests in the hands of a panel appointed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has six months to make recommendations to the President about how to proceed.
Mcdonald, a U.S. Air Force veteran, co-facilitates the Vet2Vet Trans Peer Support Group. The group offers peer counseling for trans veterans and their families or those who feel conflict regarding gender issues. The group meets bi-weekly at the Jamaica Plain and Brockton VA hospitals.
Although the proposed military ban will not affect the group directly, Mcdonald said they are concerned about what might happen to trans people currently serving in the military. If Trump’s proposal is implemented, veterans could be dishonorably discharged and lose healthcare and other benefits upon returning home.
A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation estimates that there are between 1,320 and 6,630 active duty trans military personnel out of a total 1.3 million service members. The Williams Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles estimates that number could go as high as 15,000 when reserve and National Guard troops are included. The organization also reported that there were 130,000 trans veterans as of 2014.
On a broader scale, the Transgender American Veterans Association is engaging in talks with its connections at the Pentagon to ensure that the ban is not put into effect. Denny Meyer, the group’s media director and veterans affairs officer, said the group has no choice but to take matters into its own hands.
“Congress has no spine and can’t take any action because they are in perpetual shock every single day awaiting the next outrageous thing the President will do,” Meyer said.
Meyer said that removing active duty trans service members will have consequences that the military might not readily consider and constitute a waste of taxpayer dollars. About 20 percent of the trans population in the U.S. has served or is currently serving in the military, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).
Meyer said trans people are twice as likely as any other group to enlist.
“The military spends something like $100,000 training them and making them experts in areas like electronics and cybersecurity, and now you want to replace them with the snap of your fingers,” Meyer said. “It would take 10-15 years to achieve the same level of skill and expertise and reduce the effectiveness of the military.”
Beyond the time it will take to recruit and train new service members, Meyer said the military will need to spend more money on recruiting because trans people will no longer be allowed to enlist and other marginalized groups may be deterred from doing so as well.
Goldbach, who studies issues related to social stigma and mental health in the LGBTQ community, said he’s heard firsthand about the impact the uncertainty is having on trans service members.
“Of the trans service members I have spoken to, this uncertainty is taking a major toll on their feelings of stability and mental health,” he said.
The proposed ban flies in the face of reality for young service members, who have grown up with a diverse set of peers their whole lives, according to Meyer. He said that introducing artificial divisions could introduce conflict that would not have existed before.
“Young people today serving the military grew up with gay people coming out in junior high school … there’s total acceptance,” Meyer said. “The same is true of transgender people serving in all of our countries without a glass ceiling of security or anything else. The president’s actions are fanning the flames of you shouldn’t trust each other and creating prejudice where it did not exist before.”
On the subject of trust, Goldbach said he’s heard from trans service members who are receiving support from their peers on the ground regardless of what’s happening in Washington.
“Teamwork and cohesion are critical to the mission of the military,” Goldbach said. “Several service members have indicated to me that their comrades are quite supportive of them and are doing their best to show their support both on and off base.”
As the uncertainty continues to play out over the next few months, Mcdonald and her peers at Vet2Vet will continue supporting each other and lobbying legislators to speak out against the ban’s implementation. She said the group always welcomes new members; anyone interested in joining can contact her at [email protected].
“We do nothing wrong other than being ourselves,” Mcdonald said. “No one has the right to tell us how we’re supposed to be.”
Mattis has until February 21, 2018 to submit a plan for implementing the policy, including whether or not it will affect trans people who are currently serving in the military.