President Donald Trump says the U.S. military will no longer let transgender people serve in any capacity, reversing a policy former President Barack Obama’s administration announced a year ago.
In a string of Twitter comments, Trump said Wednesday that after consulting with generals and military experts, he was ordering the armed forces to stop accepting transgender recruits.
“Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” Trump wrote.
What happens now?
Trump did not say what would happen to transgender people already in the U.S. military, about 4,000 personnel, according to research by the Rand Corp.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later that Trump will “have to work together” with the Defense Department to “lawfully determine” the fate of transgender service personnel already in the military.
She rebuffed reporters’ inquiries suggesting that Trump had broken an election-campaign vow to support the transgender community. The president felt his decision was “the best one for the military,” Sanders said.
In addition to service members known to be transgender, defense officials said there are about 250 military personnel who are believed to be transitioning to a gender other than the one they were identified with at birth.
Trump’s announcement came one day ahead of a deadline for the military to update its medical regulations to accommodate transgender personnel, but the Pentagon appeared to be caught off-guard when the president issued his Twitter comments.
The Defense Department said it was referring all questions about the change in policy to the White House. The Pentagon said it would “continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the commander-in-chief,” and then brief military officials.
Watch: Advocates, Some Lawmakers Outraged at Trump's Ban of Transgender People from US Military
Trump’s action drew an immediate rebuke from a leading group supporting transgender rights and many lawmakers who had favored last year’s policy change.
Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said, “I know transgender service members and vets who have done more to serve their country than @realdonaldtrump has in his entire life.”
One of the country’s most prominent transgender activists, Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst freed recently from prison for leaking classified military documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, said, “So not only do you want to ban trans people, now you want to throw us in prison ?? sounds familiar.”
A senior Republican lawmaker, Senator John McCain, held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam in the 1960s, chided Trump for taking up such a serious issue on Twitter, and said the statement was unclear.
“The Department of Defense has already decided to allow currently serving transgender individuals to stay in the military, and many are serving honorably today. Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving,” McCain said.
Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, said, “No American, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be prohibited from the honor and privilege of serving our nation.”
“Thousands of transgender service members defend our country,” Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said via Twitter. “They’re patriots & should be applauded not discriminated against by Pres Trump.”
Another Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, said: “The thousands of transgender Americans serving in our #military are courage incarnate. They are patriots. And they deserve better than this.”
Hundreds of people also gathered Wednesday in both New York and San Francisco to protest Trump’s decision.
“Now, we already know what this president thinks of immigrants and Mexicans and Muslims and the poor and the sick, and now we know what he thinks about transgender people,” said Melissa Sklarz, director of development for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, told those gathered in New York.
Support for decision
Others voiced support of Trump’s decision.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, expressed support for Trump’s move, calling it the “absolute right decision.”
“It’s about time that a decision is made to restore the warrior culture and allow the U.S. military to get back to business,” Hunter said in a statement.
Mandi Ancalle, general counsel for government affairs at the Family Research Council, praised the move, saying it would ensure privacy and equal treatment.
“The position that it would have put women in to have to share birthing and bathing facilities with anatomical and biological men, that’s really what is unfair,” Ancalle said. “It’s about the fairness of the policy as a whole, it’s about ensuring the military doesn’t incur these distractions and these high costs.
Pentagon policy change
In June 2016, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the Pentagon was ending what he said were policies that discriminated against transgender people, and would start by revoking a rule that transgender people could be involuntarily discharged from military service.
Carter said at the time he was “confident that we have reason to be proud today of what this will mean for our military — because it is the right thing to do, and it is another step in ensuring that we continue to recruit and retain the most qualified people — and good people are the key to the best military in the world. Our military, and the nation it defends, will be stronger.”
Under Carter’s order, the military had planned to start allowing transgender people to enlist this year, provided they had been “stable” in their preferred gender for 18 months.
Ahead of Trump’s announcement, his defense chief, Jim Mattis, said recently the Pentagon would delay Carter’s order through the remainder of 2017 in order to review the impact of the shift.
“Since becoming the Secretary of Defense,” Mattis said, “I have emphasized that the Department of Defense must measure each policy decision against one critical standard: Will the decision affect the readiness and lethality of the force? Put another way, how will the decision affect the ability of America’s military to defend the nation? It is against this standard that I provide the following guidance on the way forward in accessing transgender individuals into the military services.”
VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report