President Truman’s July 1948 executive order desegregating the U.S. military called for “the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense.” Less than a year later, Army Secretary Kenneth C. Royall told a presidential commission that “the history of two wars has demonstrated that in general Negro troops have been less qualified than white troops,” especially in direct engagement with the enemy. He soon resigned, and that was appropriate. His racist views made him unfit for continued government service and diminished the national security of the United States.
President Trump a few days ago announced his self-described “great favor” to the U.S. military: a total ban on the recruitment of transgender service members and the eventual attrition of all openly serving transgender troops. He’s asked Defense Secretary James Mattis to lead an inquisition that will decide whether some 2,450 transgender troops are effective, lethal or disrupt unit cohesion and tax military resources. However, the directive also allows Mattis to advise the president “at any time, in writing, that a change to this policy is warranted.” Unless he wants to be remembered like Royall, Mattis should advise the president to rescind the ban.
The horrors of the gay ban are instructive. As Mattis knows, before it was rescinded in 2011, the gay ban forced brave and honorable members of our national security apparatus to lead terrorized, clandestine lives, and it enabled military investigators to initiate cruel, unjust pogroms on their own. As many as 100,000 veterans were discharged during this long period of injustice and, to date, the Defense Department has corrected very few of their service records.
Furthermore, the gay ban prompted many colleges to exclude Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs and led to law schools barring recruiters from the military Judge Advocates General’s Corps. The ban had profoundly negative effects not just on the recruitment and retention of gay service members, but on the recruitment of all service members. Since repeal of the gay ban, ROTC has had a renaissance on campus and the military can recruit the best JAG candidates from all law schools.
As this new school year begins, the transgender ban will cause a reckoning across colleges and universities. Institutions such as the City College of New York, Columbia, Stanford, Harvard and Yale, will have to decide whether to continue to allow the Defense Department to administer discriminatory indoctrination and recruitment programs. Furthermore, cadets and midshipmen will have to decide whether they are willing to accept a commission where, as the first line of military management, they could be compelled to initiate the end of a transgender comrade’s military career.
Even if Mattis advised in writing that the ban should be lifted, Trump does not have to take his counsel. In the end, the president might shrug off the resignation of military officials, the destruction of recruitment channels and the moral compromise of military leadership, but Congress should not.
Through inaction and incrementalism, Congress gave Trump power that he abused. Congress relied on the discretion of a new president to shelter transgender service members until total integration. The delay in codifying their rights exposed them to prohibition, disgrace and elimination.
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Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently reminded Congress that it is equal to the president. It was a timely reminder: According to the Congressional Research Service, Congress can immediately end the transgender ban, before any discharges occur. That could be done now as part of the annual, must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. With or without the NDAA as a vehicle, Congress should overrule the president and permanently rescind the ban on transgender service members.
There has been vocal, bipartisan support for transgender service members. Republican senators Richard Shelby and Orrin Hatch have expressed their support for transgender service members, and 45 senators — 44 Democrats and Republican Susan Collins — signed a letter to Mattis opposing the ban.
However, action and reform also depend on public demand. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 58% of adults oppose the transgender ban, and newer veterans organizations such as OutServe-SLDN and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America are aggressively supporting transgender warriors. But too many of the older organizations, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America, remain silent. This silence cannot stand.
In an act of craven bigotry, Trump has refused to maintain “the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense.” Trump passed the buck to Mattis, who must now choose between ignominy and honor. It is time for swift intervention. Congress must take decisive, bipartisan action to protect transgender service members and the integrity and future of the United States military.
Rob Cuthbert, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, managed the military discharge upgrade clinic at the Veteran Advocacy Project of the Urban Justice Center. He is the co-author of Casting Troops Aside: The United States Military’s Illegal Personality Discharge Problem, for Vietnam Veterans of America.
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