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Military expert talks about fitness of trans members to serve
by Molly Sprayregen
2017-08-27

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On July 26, Donald Trump released a series of tweets declaring his decision to ban transgender service members from the U.S. military, blaming the supposed exorbitant healthcare costs trans service members would bring. The military announced it wouldn't take action unless there is official policy change, but the tweets reignited a rigorous debate surrounding trans service members' motivation and fitness to serve. ( Editor's note: Trump has since moved forward, signing a directive banning transgender military recruits and potentially banning those who already serve. )

Those who are in favor of a ban on trans service members, however, would be hard pressed to find any empirical research to support their ideas. According to Brandon Hill, a leading researcher in trans military service and the executive director of the University of Chicago Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health, the data on trans service members overwhelmingly suggest they are as fit to serve as anybody else.

Hill worked on a study, Fit to Serve?, published in Transgender Health in January 2016, that assessed the fitness of 55 trans active duty service members ( ADSM ). The study found that trans ADSM experience the same mental and physical health concerns as those who are cisgender. Hill explained that many of the studies on trans service members have focused on veterans, which he feels is not sufficient to determine fitness at time of service. Thus, studies like his, which found that the mental and physical health of trans ADSM differ widely from that of veterans, are vital to this debate.

Hill's study and about 20 others from the past few years have all drawn the same conclusions, the professor stated. Hill said the Rand Corporation conducted an assessment of all recent studies and found no reason to prevent trans people from serving.

"I'm not surprised that the administration didn't use the fitness argument," Hill said, "because its been shown that fitness is not the issue—that even having a gender identity disorder category or gender dysphoria diagnosis isn't exclusionary. Fitness is based on other mental health assessments, physical endurance, all of those things."

Hill is also working on a paper that discredits the idea that trans people enlist solely for free healthcare. "We had an operating hypothesis that that wasn't the case," he said, "Because the requirements of the military would probably outweigh people who are just doing this to get some kind of coverage."

Hill and his team assessed enlistment motivations of transgender service members and found that, like many service members, most enlist based on military recruitment campaigns that promise perks like exploring the world. "We didn't see anyone looking to get medical expenses covered, and it wouldn't explain the over 100,000 veterans that have already served that had no access to trans medical services." Beyond that, a study released by the Rand Corporation in 2016 found that trans healthcare would only increase the military budget by a maximum of 0.13 percent.

The military was set to lift the ban on trans enlistment on July 1, but Defense Secretary James Mattis delayed doing so for six months, claiming more needed to be done to assess whether lifting the ban would impede military readiness. Hill has also been working to debunk this military readiness argument, which has been used time and again to discriminate against women and minorities.

The idea is that people will become distracted if forced to serve beside anyone who makes them uncomfortable. "There has been no data to support that. At all," Hill emphasized. On the contrary, he believes forcing trans service members to remain in the closet and deal with the distress of concealing their identities would impede military readiness far more than cis and openly trans people serving side by side.

The military, Hill explained, is wildly different from the civilian world in that the comfort of the service members is more or less irrelevant. If a policy is made, it is followed, regardless of personal feelings or beliefs. "It's not to say [new policies and trainings] erase any kind of transphobia or potential discrimination," Hill said, "But they really set a policy that it won't be tolerated that is universally accepted by service members, at least while in service."

Before deciding to eventually lift the ban, the military conducted a 180-day assessment to see whether open service for trans people would be feasible and concluded it is. Thus, the military has worked diligently over the past year to make policies and hold trainings that make open trans service a reality, and Hill questions how a reversal of this policy will play out. "You just don't flip a switch on and off. … You have to figure out, what do we do with this information that we've gotten over the year? Are you going to start discharging people or are you not? On what grounds would they be discharged? Is it honorable, dishonorable? All those things have to be worked out. You can't just say no more ban, ban is reinstated, it doesn't work that way."

Because the ban is currently in a transition period, openly trans people cannot enlist, but those already serving may do so openly. If the ban is reinstated, it's hard to say what will happen to the estimated 15,000 trans people currently serving. "You're going to cut your military by 15,000—and at varying ranks?," Hill asked. "We interviewed people who were all the way up to commander. We're not just talking about entry-level soldiers. These are life, career military trans folks, so you're going to lose that level of intelligence, experience, expertise. It makes no sense, it's damaging, you're hurting your own military and the real question is for what gain?"

Soon, Hill will testify at a hearing held by the Chicago City Council to determine whether the city will pass a resolution that supports trans military service.

When asked what he'd say to someone who opposes lifting the ban, Hill said, "We have had hundreds of thousands of trans people serve in our military already, so there's no banning the people who have already served, and everyone, including the President himself and everyone in his administration, has benefitted from transgender military service, whether it was open or not … and to turn your back on the group [from whom] you've gained safety and protection for the country that you're leading is pretty discrediting, and that I would say to anyone, but I definitely would say that to the administration because I think it's offensive. You can't try to get rid of a group that has historically been there and say that they didn't contribute to your protection."


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