During Wednesday night’s House Armed Services Committee hearing, Republican lawmakers fired a shot across the bow of transgender military service. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require all transgender servicemembers to be honorably discharged.
Hartzler promised to withdraw her amendment after the discussion, which she did, but “with the understanding and plea to Secretary Mattis to take the steps to restore readiness and make sure we don’t waste precious tax dollars; and if that doesn’t happen, understand that we need to take action once this gets on the floor.” In other words, if the military doesn’t reverse its own plan to implement transgender service, she’ll push Congress to override it.
The Pentagon announced last June it would allow transgender people to openly serve. The estimated nearly 10,000 transgender people already serving were promised immediately that they could not be discharged for serving openly, and a year-long plan was laid out for allowing transgender enlistment, and for training the forces on transgender inclusion. Enlistment was to begin as of July 1, but the military chiefs have said they need at least six more months to “study the issue.” Defense Secretary James Mattis has not announced his decision about the delay, but the Pentagon has made clear that he is not considering reversing the policy entirely.
The discussion Hartzler started in the committee was a preview of the ugly fights surely to come. She expressed two major objections. Her first is that allowing trans people to serve would be too expensive. Remarkably, she claimed that, in the first 10 years, it will cost the military $1.35 billion to cover transition-related surgeries for those new servicemembers.
ThinkProgress reached out to Hartzler’s office to ask the source of that number, but didn’t hear back by publication. According to the RAND Corporation, the annual costs to accommodate trans servicemembers’ medical needs would only be between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually. At most, that amounts to a 0.13 percent increase in health care expenditures for active-duty military personnel. Hartzler’s estimate is 16 times bigger than even the highest estimate, according to RAND’s findings, and seems to be entirely unfounded.
Hartzler’s other concern is that transgender people just aren’t ready to serve and that meeting their medical needs will just be too much of a burden on military readiness. “Why would we purposefully recruit individuals to serve,” she asked, “whom we know cannot serve?” She went on to suggest that if flat feet, asthma, and sleepwalking are disqualifying, so too should being transgender, because it’s a “medical condition.”
“Is it fair to recruit our sons and daughters to fight for the nation and — instead of being able to focus on the enemy — subjecting them to disturbing distractions of very personal privacy issue involving sleeping and showering with individuals born of the opposite sex?” she said. “It is not. Military service is a privilege, not a right.”
Rep. Steve Russell (R-OK) added to the transphobic rhetoric. He read from the training manual, seemingly aghast at simple instructions for how to accommodate transgender personnel. “I suggest we have lost our way as a nation,” he concluded. Recently, he also claimed that the inclusive changes “shock his conscience,” warning that soldiers will falsely claim a transgender identity to avoid combat deployments.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq, opened by explaining how tough the military is supposed to be. “The military is there to kill people and to execute the will of our government,” he explained, complaining that transgender inclusion doesn’t make the military more effective, more efficient, or more deadly.
Despite that toughness, Hunter just didn’t think he or other marines like him could handle living and working with transgender servicemembers. “I could not imagine having to share berthing [bunks] or showers with somebody who was a girl and didn’t have the surgery to become a man but kept the girl stuff and now she’s with a bunch of guys or vice versa,” he said.
Several Democratic lawmakers did come to the defense of trans servicemembers. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) reminded the committee that there was a “rigorous” year-long study that found there would be minimal impacts to military readiness — which is why the service chiefs signed off on the policy in the first place.
Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA) pointed out that there are already transgender people serving openly in the military and it hasn’t been a problem. He also debunked Hartzler’s claim that trans servicemembers depend on hormones that need to be refrigerated, limiting their ability to serve in the field. “You don’t refrigerate the testosterone, you switch over to a gel, which is what CENTCOM requires if you’re going to be deployed.”
But McEachin also got a bit personal in his brief remarks:
What’s really troublesome to me, Mr. Chairman, is that I can imagine — not these individuals to my right, not my colleagues to my right — but a Congress 70 or 80 years ago that said that a certain group of people weren’t smart enough to fly airplanes, that they run at the first sign of battle, and that African Americans could not serve in the United States Armed Forces. Well, African Americans proved them wrong. The unit adapted, and I suggest that the unit adapt to transgender individuals as well.
And Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) offered this very simple response to the proposed amendment: “Every time we’ve added a new group of Americans beyond white males, who originally served, the sky was feared to be falling. And in each case, we learn that everybody in this country, when treated with dignity and respect and given the chance to serve, does us all proud.”
Over the past several years, the NDAA has been the target of many anti-LGBTQ amendments, all of which were eventually stripped or significantly watered down because of veto threats from President Obama.