Feature writing

LGBTQ+ issues

Transgender troops are ‘excited’ for Joe Biden to strike down President Trump’s ban

Website:
The Daily Beast

Date:
December 18, 2020

Trans troops and their advocates tell Tim Teeman about the damage Trump’s ban has done, and their anticipation of Joe Biden’s promise to repeal it on “day one” of his presidency.

Joe Biden has promised to strike down President Trump’s ban on trans people serving openly in the military “on day one” of his presidency, reinstating the principle of open service he and then-President Obama instituted in 2016. Trans people already serving and those wanting to enlist are excitedly anticipating the policy change.

Kaz Lewis, 23, graduated from West Point in June, and is hoping to become an engineer in the army. He decided not to get a diagnosis of gender dysphoria as it would have prevented him from getting commissioned. “I am out to people, but I can’t do anything at all to formally, medically transition, until anything changes,” Lewis told The Daily Beast.

“It’s irritating because I want to live authentically and also serve. It’s walking a fine line, of how long I am willing to wait. Biden winning the election was a relief. It means something will change in the next couple of months. It’s something I can look forward to. I can get on with serving as my true self.”

Paulo Batista, 36, from San Diego, is looking to join the navy. “The way it works now, I would be automatically disqualified if I went through the medical now, or go for a medical waiver to state why my surgeries would not cause an issue to me enlisting.” Batista told The Daily Beast that in recent times the waiver process had seemed log-jammed, “there were lawsuits pending all over, and no responses from the Pentagon, so I would rather not go through that right now. I wanted to see what would happen in the election.”

“It’s simple: every American who is qualified to serve, should be able to—and we should all be grateful for their service and courage,” Biden told Dallas Voice in February. “President Trump’s transgender military ban reversed the June 2016 Obama-Biden Administration policy explicitly allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military. On day one of my presidency, I will direct the Department of Defense to allow transgender service members to serve openly and free from discrimination. I know that this is not just the right thing to do, but it’s in our national interest.”

A spokesperson for the Biden transition team told The Daily Beast that he had pledged to repeal the ban at the outset of the administration. It is understood that, just as the policy was introduced by an executive action, Biden will likely strike it down using the same mechanism.

Biden’s campaign website makes clear Biden’s intention to reverse the transgender military ban, which is “discriminatory and detrimental to our national security. Every American who is qualified to serve in our military should be able to do so—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and without having to hide who they are. Biden will direct the U.S. Department of Defense to allow transgender service members to serve openly, receive needed medical treatment, and be free from discrimination.”

The Trump ban, said Lewis, “unnecessarily prevented people from serving. I’m just as competent a leader and soldier as the guy sitting next to me. I don’t know why there should be a ban, or any form of discrimination. Trans people serve in the same way as everyone else.”

Lewis said his colleagues have been “generally accepting. Most of the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis are very much, ‘Hey, you be my battle buddy, I’ll be your battle buddy.’ It’s really cool. It’s a non-issue to people on an individual basis.”

Biden’s victory had brought Batista “tears of joy when we have been fighting for so long. I am so excited. I didn’t think Trump would go this far. Once Biden reverses the ban by executive order, I think the policy change should take around 30 days.”

 

“What we want is coming. We just can’t predict when it is going to be.”

Lt. Col. Bree Fram, an active duty astronautical engineer in the U.S. Air Force and a spokesperson for the trans military advocacy organization Spart*a, said the group had “every confidence” the Biden administration would issue an executive order to reverse the trans ban.

“He has said it himself multiple times, and we have no reason to doubt that commitment and that commitment happening very quickly,” Fram said, adding the organization could not comment on whether Biden or any members of his transition team had been in communication with the organization, and if they had, what the substance of those discussions had been.

“That kind of work is done behind the scenes,” Fram said. “We are very confident they will take action, and we will hopefully have a seat at the table to improve things once they do.”

While it was impossible to give an exact timeline of change, Fram said Spart*a was telling its members: “What we want is coming. We just can’t predict when it is going to be.” The group’s members are “very excited,” she added.

As The Daily Beast previously reported, until now there has been a group of out-transgender individuals exempt from the ban and able to continue serving and receive medical treatment. Fram is part of this group—estimated at around 1,600 people, all with diagnoses of gender dysphoria predating the ban—having come out as trans in 2016, when the ban on transgender service was first lifted.

A second, much larger group of trans people serving has been non-exempt from the ban, and did not receive a diagnosis of gender dysphoria before the policy went into place. They have been forced to serve in their sex assigned at birth and are not able to access medical care or receive gender-affirming surgery. Spart*a says this group numbers anywhere between 2,000 and 13,000 troops. A more accurate figure is impossible to deduce, because the Department of Defense does not keep such data.

The repeal of the ban, said Fram, will most practically help those trans troops already serving who have been unable to come out, and access the medical care they need for fear of being discharged; and those potential trans recruits eager to join the military and unable to do so because of the ban.

“A lot of people are waiting to come out, and waiting to access proper medical care,” said Fram. “They want to move forward, because moving forward allows them to be better at their job, which is what the military should want from them.”

The reversal of the ban would seem straightforward, said Navy Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann, president of Spart*a. The challenge would be to ensure commanders and others in seniority are fully briefed about the reversal so they can confidently and smoothly oversee its implementation; or as Dremann put it, how the policy is filtered down from the DoD to “Joe Schmo Schmuckatelli.”

For those trans servicepeople who are post-transition and already out like Fram and Dremann, the lifting of the ban “will give us the opportunity to make better policy and help those folks coming out and accessing medical care. We need to do our duty, and make the military a better place.”

The timing of the rule change will depend on the appointment and confirmation of a new defense secretary. When the new policy is announced Spart*a will study it, and consider if it needs to be refined in any way. The organization hopes it would be “a matter of months” between Biden signing an executive order and the Pentagon implementing that order as policy.

A recent study by the Palm Center, whose authors include a number of armed forces’ surgeons general, said the ban had hurt military readiness, as well as damaging the morale of existing trans service members.

The repeal would also remove, as Dremann defined it, “the assumption of fragility” that the ban placed on trans troops who were already serving and —“that we were incapable of doing our jobs, but ‘we’ll keep you.’”

“The ban put on us a presumption of unfitness,” said Fram, rooted in Trump tweeting that trans people were a “burden” on the military, when he first announced the ban in 2017. Biden repealing the ban “immediately switches it to a presumption that you are fit for duty. It’s such a weight to be lifted off our shoulders. It changes perceptions.”

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), told The Daily Beast that he was newly representing a Michigan trans woman in the National Guard, in a similar situation to the other four cases he is overseeing—from trans people within the services, and those wanting to join. Minter is arguing not only that trans recruits should not have to apply for medical waivers, but that the ban itself is unconstitutional.

“The cases become moot if what Joe Biden does achieves the same goal,” Minter said. “If Congress were to pass a law requiring equal treatment that would be great. I’m not sure how likely that is. One of the worst aspects for the military has been the unprecedented nature of what President Trump did. Never in the past has the military studied a particular issue, adopted a new policy as it did under Obama for open service for trans people, gone to great lengths to implement it, then have a new president come in and arbitrarily change it.”

“At least we know the Biden administration is not going to govern by tweet,” Dremann added. Given that this policy has changed three times in the last four years, some confusion—around issues as diverse as medications and deployability—was inevitable, said Framm, and it would likely not be done in malice. “The key thing is, we’re not going to be banned anywhere,” said Dremann. “Instead, we will be working out practical details useable for commanders and service members.”

Fram said Biden’s repeal means four years of open service for trans service personnel, making it “unthinkable” that the policy could be reversed again at some point in the future. “To go back on this would be unconscionable.”

Even under a future, conservative, anti-LGBTQ administration, Fram hopes the next four years means “we get to the point where they leave this issue alone.”

Minter agrees that a future conservative administration would be likely to try and revive the ban. “It’s a lot of work to implement a discriminatory policy. It’s much easier for the military to treat everybody the same, and apply the same standards across the board. Also, the ban was hugely unpopular with the public. People don’t like to see people who want to serve their country mistreated, or used as political pawns. Any future conservative president will surely take note of that, and would be unlikely to use this issue again as a political football.”

However, Spart*a would like to at least the entertain the possibility that discrimination against LGBTQ service personnel could be enshrined in military employment legislation that extends the principle of non-discrimination as set in the Supreme Court Title VII ruling of earlier this year. (It is not thought that Biden and his team have sought—yet at least—to formulate a permanent legislative fix.)

“Right now, though, our eyes are absolutely focused on the Biden executive action, and the need to restore open service,” said Fram. “I am so hopeful and completely optimistic. We’re going to get this right this time. I’m really excited about what the future will bring us. This will be a switch from fighting for our existence to fighting to make our existence better—and it should be welcomed by the LGBTQ community as a sign of things to come from the Biden administration.”

 

“When you love something like serving your country, the military, it’s not just a job.”

It has been a battle for Paulo Batista to even find a willing armed forces recruiter to oversee his application. “I’m not sure it was about transphobia. They want recruits who will be easy entrances. When there are 10 people in front of you, do you take the nine easy ones or the one that will take four months or more to get a waiver? It’s been really frustrating. Recruiters don’t know who to reach out to in the military. It’s a lack of communication.”

Batista said he had found the process “discouraging” thus far, but laughed that he was also a “stubborn individual” who had reached out to 14 different recruiting offices before finding a recruiter who he finally felt was fighting in his corner. “I said that I didn’t want to waste my time, that my time was valuable, and that I was trying to give me life to my country. This isn’t something small. This recruiter has been working with me every day since. She doesn’t know exactly what to do either, but she’s not going to stop either.”

Batista joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a teenager, but growing into adulthood he had to care for his father, who had and eventually died of cancer, and then look after the business affairs of his parents. At an LGBTQ conference he attended, aged 18, he learned that “being transgender was an actual identity.” He found a good support group and therapist, and found “the right people in the right places.”

“I figured this is the right time for me (39 is the cutoff age for the Navy Reserves). It’s a regret in life I don’t want to be a regret in life. I’m able, fit, an athlete, a competitive bodybuilder with no medical conditions. There is nothing that could disqualify me, except that I am transgender.”

Batista, who presently works in property management but has been fascinated by computers from a young age, is doing a degree in computer science, and wants to be an IT engineer in the Navy. “I’ve been wanting to enlist for so long, it’s a love. It’s something I always wanted to do, and when you love something like serving your country, the military, it’s not just a job.”

Kaz Lewis’ father is in the Army; he “connected with the structure of the military” at a young age and has wanted to serve his whole life. “I cannot imagine doing anything else.” Lewis had begun his training at West Point when Obama was planning to lift the ban on trans recruits; when Trump reversed that Lewis was mid-training. He went from anticipating serving openly to waiting it out. “I have been really lucky to have a bunch of cool friends and team-mates to support me,” Lewis said. “They really helped me become more confident in myself as a leader and team-mate. That’s been super-beneficial and awesome.”

Many of Lewis’ colleagues do not know about the trans ban, and if they do they are not very knowledgable about it. When Lewis talks to them about the ban they are confused as to why it’s necessary. “They say, ‘I’m sorry about that, that doesn’t make sense.’ They don’t want it to be hard on me.”

Lewis has faced no overtly negative reactions from commanders. “In general I’ve had to educate them on the policy, when that is something I think as a leader you should be aware of, or know where to look for answers, so your soldiers or subordinates don’t need to educate you.”

Lewis is “feeling pretty optimistic” about the future. “I am hoping to get my diagnosis and start my transition, hormones and all. It’s really exciting.”

Trump’s ban “brought out the ugly unknowns” many have about transgender people, said Batista. “It’s a lack of education, which means trans people become an easy target as a minority group. People do not understand much about us, unless they dig deep and speak to people within the community itself. I can definitely see how Trump can pick up a prejudiced crowd around it—whether it’s about religion or that we cost a lot of money. It’s just another example of the misinformation that this administration has put out there.

“It’s unfortunate, because when Obama and Biden brought open service into being they showed there were no issues around this—that it was just about people looking for equality. It’s been great to see the support Biden and (Kamala) Harris have already given to the trans community, recognizing the murders and violence we endure. I can’t wait to be more than a leader within the Navy. Finally, we feel seen. If there are issues once the ban is lifted, I know any problem will be sorted out, and not be put to the side or lost.”

Batista doesn’t think the ban could be revisited by a future conservative administration. “I think the Biden administration will take our service to a new level, and make it better established. If any future administration tries to revive the ban, I feel like it would be a loss for them, like trying to pick over a scab that’s already healed. It would just make them look small, going after unnecessary targets. We will have four years to get the knowledge out there over how open service is working. Then, hopefully, we can move on.”

Lewis’ ultimate ambition is to go into space as an astronaut. Until then, “I just want to be the best soldier and leader I can be. I don’t want to be ‘that’ trans soldier. I don’t want you to see me as ‘Oh here’s the trans solder,’ but rather, ‘Oh hey, this person is a good soldier and a good leader.’”