While the Michael Cohen hearing was stealing the spotlight Wednesday, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel held its own hearing on President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban. After stirring testimony from a panel of five out trans service members, two representatives from the administration then attempted to defend the ban — and ended up doing so by comparing being transgender to having a disease.
James N. Stewart, who is currently performing the duties of Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, rehashed the administration’s familiar arguments. Repeatedly, he insisted that the policy is not a “ban,” nor does it target “transgender” people. Instead, he claimed that it only impacts people who present with the condition of gender dysphoria, and was thus not discriminatory. Vice Admiral Raquel Bono, Director of the Defense Health Agency, was also on hand to testify that there were medical justifications for not allowing people with gender dysphoria to serve.
With the exception of Rep. Trent Kelly (R-MS), who appeared sympathetic to allowing transgender people to serve, only Democratic members of the committee asked questions, and they all attempted to chip away at Stewart and Bono’s claims. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who chairs the subcommittee, said she was “astonished” by their arguments, and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-MA) noted that it costs three times as much to train a single pilot as it does to provide a year’s worth of transition-related medical services across the entire military.
Many of the members pointed out that every major medical organization has rejected the ban, leaving Bono to claim that the military has its own data to justify it. But she could not in any way explain how they determined, for example, that starting hormone replacement therapy would result in 12 months of non-deployability, insisting the science was still shifting.
Another of her claims was that service members with gender dysphoria have substantially more behavioral therapy visits. This fell apart under questioning from Rep. Susan Davis (D-MA), who noted that the military requires them to have weekly visits and so it’s hypocritical to then hold that against them. Davis also made the point that given the mental strain of military service, it should be considered a good thing if service members are seeking out such support, not something for which they are punished.
A frustrated Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-TX) ended her questioning by asking, “How is this not discrimination?” The question prompted Stewart to repeat his refrain that the policy was about a condition and not an identity. But that argument came crumbling down as well once Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) started his fiery questioning.
Brown posed a hypothetical: If somebody showed up to enlist who had already undergone transition and was no longer experiencing gender dysphoria, could they enlist? “No,” Stewart replied. “That’s the ban. That is the ban!” Brown said.
Stewart and Bono, however, attempted to double down. They claimed that the surgical procedures such a trans person would have experienced are comparable to other disqualifying surgeries, like heart surgery. In other words, they directly compared being a happy, healthy transgender person who is qualified to serve with someone who has a debilitating disease. Brown called out the blatant discrimination.
Speier attempted to follow-up on Brown’s questions. “You’re talking, Mr. Stewart, of a health condition,” she implored, noting that transitioning alleviates gender dysphoria and thus there is no comparable health condition. Stewart maintained that transitioning is just like other disqualifying surgeries. “You’re not helping your case,” Speier quipped back.
Bono tried to offer yet another example of someone who had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone surgery to treat it. “Even though somebody may have had a cancer diagnosis, and they successfully had the surgery, which cures their cancer and they are in remission, by virtue of the fact they’ve had that diagnosis and the surgery, they are disqualified from military service,” she said.
Speier wasn’t buying it. “If you have had transition surgery, and you can meet all the physical standards, how can we possibly deny that individual from serving?” she said. “You’re in — you’re in a difficult position.”
It was a rather stunning demonstration that the administration has no justification for banning people who have transitioned. Furthermore, comparing being transgender to having a disease displays, at best, a profound misunderstanding of gender identity, but perhaps also blatant animus against transgender people.
“As today’s testimony made clear, there is no question that this is a discriminatory ban on transgender people who are willing and able to serve their country,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) legal director Shannon Minter in a statement. NCLR is litigating two of the four cases across the country challenging the ban in court.
Perhaps most remarkably, Stewart and Bono’s comments came just an hour after a group of trans service members testified before Congress for the first time ever. Several of them also testified before the study panel that then implemented the ban. They told the subcommittee about how much better they could perform their jobs after transitioning, how much support they had from their fellow service members, and how minimally their medical procedures had impacted their deployability.
When Trahan asked that panel what were the most difficult moments in their military service so far, several replied that it was the day Trump tweeted out the ban. Captain Jennifer Peace said she was enjoying some vacation “when I woke up to the tweets from the president of the United States. I think it was in that moment that I for the first time really questioned, ‘Why am I still waking up and putting on this uniform when time and time again I am not able to serve?’ Why should I wait around to deploy and risk my life again when the people that I am serving do not even want me here?”
Congress has proposed legislation to reverse Trump’s ban, but it’s unclear if it can muster sufficient support in the Republican-controlled Senate.