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‘I Would Like to Say It’s Ignorance’: Trump’s Transgender Military Ban Throws Careers Into Flux

Serena Sonoma

Transgender service members are unsure of their fate after this week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the Trump administration to ban trans people from serving in the armed forces.

“Part of our soldier’s creed is, ‘never leave a fallen comrade.’ It’s all about being united together,” says Kathryn Goldston, a staff sergeant in the Texas Army National Guard who has served in the military for 13 years and came out as a transgender woman two years ago.

It was summer 2006 when she decided to enter the military for many reasons, like getting benefits for college, learning a trade, and getting out of her hometown. “I’ve always been drawn to the military because I like the way it’s structured,” she told Rewire.News. “Everything has its place and everything has a purpose, so I felt more utilized in the military than I did in the Civilian Marshal, and still do.”

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday voted 5-to-4 along ideological lines to allow the Trump administration to ban transgender people from serving in the armed forces—a policy first proposed by Trump in 2017. Goldston said she hopes the transgender ban wasn’t rooted in callous political calculation. 

“I would like to say it’s ignorance, but I’m not in a position where I can talk bad about them, but I would have hope that they had everyone’s best interest in heart, and not just the handful of people that put them into power.”  

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Injunctions from lower courts had stopped the administration from enforcing Trump’s transgender ban. Supreme Court conservatives put a hold on two of those injunctions this week, though one lower court’s nationwide injunction remains in effect. This means that, for now, the Department of Defense (DoD) can’t enforce the discriminatory policy. But if a higher court lifts that final injunction—which is likely—the Trump administration will be given the green light to enforce the ban on transgender people serving openly in the military.

The policy reverses the Obama administration’s decision to allow transgender people to openly serve in the military and obtain funding for gender reassignment surgery.

The move is one of many reversals of the Obama administration’s protections for transgender people. The Trump administration has stripped workplace protections for transgender employees, has reversed Obama-era guidelines protecting the rights of transgender students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, and is considering reinterpreting Title IX to leave transgender and gender nonconforming youth unprotected from harassment within school systems.

Goldston says Trump’s military ban has been formulated with an exemption that allows trans people already in the military and already openly trans to continue to serve, but new trans people are not allowed to join. “We’re also no longer allowed to switch branches, and enlist from one branch to another, or go from enlisted to officer or enlisted to warrant officer or anything like that.” Goldston says it opens the door to judge transgender people and say they are less of a soldier than everyone else, “and once that starts, what are they going to try to take away next?”

It’s been a rough week for trans people serving in the military, Goldston said. “We’re still keeping our heads up because we know that it’s not what we wanted, but we also know that this is not over. In the meantime we’re going to continue doing what we said we would do and do it to the best of our abilities, and we’re just going to keep ourselves motivated and keep on with the mission.” 

Lewis P., who requested that his full name not be used, served in the Illinois National Guard for four months and 20 days. He was born into a military family, with a father who served in the British Army and a maternal grandfather who served in the U.S. Army. “I can remember as far back as fourth grade having a desire to serve,” he told Rewire.News.

After graduating high school, he attended art school instead of joining the military because policy at the time did not allow for transgender people to enlist. He spoke to a recruiter about Trump’s transgender ban after an Obama-era policy allowing trans people to enlist went into effect January 1, 2018.

“I had first started working with him in July of 2016, shortly after it had been announced that the ban would be lifted. I quickly learned that I would be in a holding pattern for another year.” In July 2017, Lewis got in touch with his recruiter again only to find out it would be another six months of waiting, and in January 2018, he finally enlisted. He swore in and signed his contract on February 23, 2018, and departed for basic training in April.

“Toward the end of basic training I sustained a fracture in my right hip and came home on a … medical discharge,” he says. Lewis says that he’s waiting for July of this year to try to obtain a re-enlistment waiver.

“Being transgender had no impact on my ability to succeed at basic training,” he says. “Being transgender was really a non-issue entirely. I lived in a male squad bay and was respected and treated as a man. I did not have any problems with any of my battle buddies in my platoon in regards to my being transgender.” All of the non-commissioned officers and officers above him were respectful and treated him the same as all the other trainees.

Lewis says he isn’t sure how the Supreme Court ruling will affect DoD policy, but he worries he could be barred from re-enlisting if Trump’s ban survives the many legal challenges against it.

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the DoD issued a statement by spokesperson Carla Gleason, seeking to clarify that the policy was not a ban on all transgender people in the military,

“As always, we treat all transgender people with respect and dignity. DoD’s proposed policy is NOT a ban on service by transgender persons,” Gleason told CNN. “It is critical that DoD be permitted to implement personnel policies that it determines are necessary to ensure the most lethal and combat effective fighting force in the world. DoD’s proposed policy is based on professional military judgement and will ensure that the U.S. Armed Forces remain the most lethal and combat forces effective fighting force in the world.”

Peter Renn, Lambda Legal’s senior attorney, in March 2018 called the Trump administration’s memorandum instructing the Defense Department to implement the ban “nothing more than a transparent ruse cobbled together with spittle and duct tape designed solely to mask discrimination.”

Like Goldston, Lewis would like to remain cautiously optimistic but says it’s hard to not be concerned. His goal is to finish what he started and complete the mission. “Enlisting was the best decision I ever made, and I hope to have the opportunity to give it another shot,” Lewis said. 

“I would tell any other trans individuals out there who have the desire to serve that they should do it. I would tell them to not give up hope, don’t quit fighting,” Lewis said. “Anything that is worth doing is never easy, but that makes it all the sweeter when the goal is accomplished.”

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