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Former military secretaries assert the Pentagon misled Congress on trans troops

Defense officials compared being transgender to having a debilitating disease at a hearing last week.

Former military secretaries call out Pentagon for 'misleading claims' on trans military ban. (PHOTO CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)
Former military secretaries call out Pentagon for 'misleading claims' on trans military ban. (PHOTO CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)

Three former military secretaries have admonished the Pentagon for making “misleading claims” to Congress in defense of the ban on transgender military service last week.

In a letter dated March 3, former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, and former Army Secretary Eric Fanning explained that two of the witnesses defending the ban at a hearing before the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee on February 27 distorted how successful trans service had been.

“The witnesses ignored data confirming the success of that policy while making the untrue assertion that holding all service members to the same standards affords ‘special accommodations’ to transgender troops,” they explained. “There is no defensible rationale for imposing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ on honorably serving transgender troops.”

The hearing featured two panels. During the first, a group of current transgender military personnel testified to their success in serving, how they benefited from transitioning, and the support they’d been given from fellow service members.

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James N. Stewart, who is currently performing the duties of under secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and Vice Admiral Raquel Bono, director of the Defense Health Agency, then attempted to defend the ban in a follow-up panel. In addition to regurgitating many of the anti-trans claims found in the report substantiating the ban, they directly compared being transgender to having a debilitating illness like heart disease or cancer.

The secretaries’ letter followed a point-by-point critique of the testimony by a group of professors from the various military academies. Stewart and Bono, they wrote, “introduced deceptive, erroneous, and false assertions about the ostensible risk that gender dysphoria poses to readiness and deployment and about standards that DoD plans to apply to transgender service members.”

“Banning gender transition is a proxy for banning transgender people, and overwhelming evidence shows that there is no honest rationale for banning transgender service members, whether or not they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, have transitioned, or need to transition,” they explained.

A day before the Congressional hearing, a group of 41 retired generals and admirals also put out their own statement, expressing “grave concern that attempts to defend the transgender military ban in court will undermine the integrity of United States military judgment.”

The ban, they insisted, violates not only military judgment but also medical research, the military’s own experiences, and the experiences of the 18 other countries that allow transgender people to serve in their militaries. “In truth, a solid wall of military sentiment opposes discrimination,” they said.

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Several LGBTQ military organizations joined the secretaries this week in admonishing the Pentagon for deceiving Congress to defend the ban.

Andy Blevins, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, which is involved in the court fights challenging the ban, told ThinkProgress, “It was truly disappointing to witness leaders within our Defense Department mischaracterize and misstate facts surrounding authentic service, all in an effort to prevent honorable and qualified individuals from wearing the cloth of this nation.”

The American Military Partner Association (AMPA), which represents LGBTQ military families and is also fighting the ban, was likewise outraged by the hearing. “It’s unconscionable that the Trump-Pence administration is going to such great lengths as misleading Congress and manipulating the facts in an attempt to justify a transgender military ban,” AMPA President Ashley Broadway-Mack said in a statement.

Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD), who directly called out Stewart and Bono during last week’s hearing, elevated the former secretaries’ letter on Twitter Tuesday, saying he felt “DOD officials clearly misled Congress on the facts of transgender service.”

“Like Trump’s bigoted ban, their claims were complete nonsense. They repeatedly used the right-wing talking point that we give ‘special accommodations’ to transgender troops in order for them to serve,” he tweeted.

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Last month, Brown joined fellow lawmakers to introduce legislation to reverse the ban. While it may pass in the House, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate.