On a fall morning, an Indiana high school announced that a recruiter from the U.S. Army National Guard would be visiting seniors. For a small part of the class, this was a day they had been looking forward to; the recruiters came in at some point every fall. A number of reasons might drive a student to enlist, including the possibility of obtaining the college education their parents could not afford and that the student’s grades don’t merit.
The National Guard for Adam, an 18-year-old high school senior who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons, was the key to his future. “I … want to go into the military to get my college paid for, to have extra money and time to do things I’d want, and meet new people,” Adam told Rewire during a recent interview. Adam is part of the waning middle class living in the Rust Belt of the United States, where jobs are hard to come by and household incomes are decreasing rapidly. “The National Guard training is only twice a month, so I will have time to go to class, work, [and] have a life without worrying about money or time to study.”
He added that a life in the National Guard would also mean getting out of his parents’ house after graduation and immediately living his life more openly as a transgender man.
Then, on August 25, President Trump signed a presidential memorandum banning transgender recruits from serving in the armed forces. CNN Politics quoted an official in the Trump administration as saying that the move came after “a series of national security considerations.” Trump explained further, in a series of tweets that:
After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. 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.
The decision to target transgender recruits on such grounds came down about a month before the National Guard recruiter visited Adam’s classes—a month before Adam was to sign on to his future.
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“When I heard about the ban on transgender recruits going into the military, I was frustrated, upset, and confused. It was like an attack on me, and I didn’t even do anything,” Adam said.
Adam had read the online articles and even the anti-transgender comments from people he would never meet in person. These people were judging new recruits based on stereotypes, propaganda, and transphobia. He said, “I mean, I get that a lot of people don’t fully understand what it is to be transgender. And I guess it’s considered something unacceptable, to some people, in society. I still don’t know what that has to do with me working and training in the Guard.”
In fact, neither the president nor his supporters seemed to realize that their reactions were hurting real people.
Each time they defended the ban, they always referred to transgender people as “distractions” and a “burden” on military resources. Others quoted costs of hormones and surgeries, when the reality is that the decision to take hormones or undergo surgery (as well as the type of surgery) is an individual decision. In other words, not every transgender person takes the hormones or undergoes full reassignment surgery. To ban every recruit based on a decision that they may or may not make shows that those supporting this ban do not see transgender people as people.
Two federal court judges recently saw the ban as discriminatory as well. Last month, the New York Times reported that Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia temporarily blocked the ban, citing the method the president chose to announce the ban, the apparent absence of factual evidence that the ban would have benefit, and the unconstitutionality of excluding a group of people in this way among the many reasons for her decision. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis seemed to agree in a case he was hearing, also disputing the ban, saying the that legislation is harming the people it targets by imposing “a stigma that exists by virtue of the president’s statements.”
The court-mandated block is only a temporary hold on the proposed ban.
For Adam, the policy’s uncertain future is enough to force him to try a new path. “I will think about [enlisting] in the future,” he says. Adam also hopes that while he is seeking and paying for a higher education, the courts manage to throw out Trump’s ban for good.
Still, Adam’s plans for the future were derailed with the announcement and, for him, it seems like there is not enough time for a new one.
The senior year is often when a student’s goals for their future education are cemented. The college placement testing is done in the junior year, and college visits begin the same year. By the summer before senior year, many students have test scores in hand and a list of the colleges to which they plan to apply. By winter of the senior year, the college applications are typically done and submitted. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is completed as well. College acceptances are usually delivered in the spring.
Adam’s plans had not involved a college track, so he hadn’t even taken the placement tests, much less visited colleges and researched funding. Instead, he is forced to look to local schools with more lenient entry requirements, and funding through student loans, work study, and a job that he can work between classes.
Prior to the judge’s October ruling, Adam felt like the ban had altered his future plans. In an interview before the judge’s decision, Adam told Rewire, “I don’t have an opportunity to pay for college or go to college sooner now. I will have to go to work after graduation and save the money I need for college. I’ll even have to work while studying,” he said.
He lamented, “With the opportunity to join the National Guard, I wouldn’t have to worry about college and money for a few years.”
Of course, the ban wouldn’t just affect Adam. It also could hurt the U.S. military, which needs recruits who are drug-free, healthy, and can pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which Adam had been studying for in his spare time. According to the Pew Research Center, the more than 1.3 million people serving in the armed forces today represent the smallest active-duty force since 2001.
Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that the armed forces are looking at a bleak future because “approximately 71 percent of the 34 million 17-to-24-year-olds in the U.S. would not qualify for military service because of reasons related to health, physical appearance and educational background.”
By banning people like Adam, the president is essentially damning our military services to a continued decline in personnel. One wonders that if the government would go so far as to lower the application standards to meet recruiting goals—as it has by issuing marijuana waivers for those who admit to past marijuana use—could it happen in a way that people unfit to serve are also being waived in?
Most important here are the individual lives that are affected by such a ban. Adam is one of the many high school seniors who expected to enlist this year. Those same kids have foregone other opportunities and prepared for and planned their lives around enlistment, boot camp, and service. It is unclear how many, also like Adam, could have their dreams dashed by Trump’s ban. There are also mental health implications, as these students are well aware of the underlying message behind these bans.
In the ruling against the administration, Judge Kollar-Kotelly said the ban was based on “disapproval of transgender people generally.” Adam agreed, explaining to Rewire, “There is transphobia affecting other parts of my life, but I didn’t expect this.”
“People are taught being different is unacceptable. Transgender people like me aren’t fully seen as people, and it affects everything around me,” he said.