President Donald Trump’s tweets regarding a ban on transgender individuals serving in the Armed Forces has complicated matters for military academies, including the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.
A successful implementation of the policy would overturn an order previously issued by the Defense Department last year asking the Armed Forces to begin a process of allowing transgender soldiers to serve openly. But representatives from the two academies affirmed the original policy remained unchanged after the president’s tweets announcing a new direction. A letter from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to senior military officers affirmed that “no changes” would be made to President Barack Obama’s prior directive until there was policy direction from the White House.
In June of 2016, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reversed a ban on transgender individuals serving openly, reporting on the results on a RAND survey conducted regarding transgender enlisted members, saying there would be “minimal readiness impact from allowing transgender service members to serve openly.” An unclassified guidance sent to the Naval Academy to accompany Carter’s statements, provided clarification over “the gender identity of an otherwise qualified individual will not bar them from joining the Navy or Marine Corps, from admission to the United States Naval Academy, or from participating in Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps or any other accession program” by July 1 of this year.
Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis announced this deadline would be postponed earlier this year. Now, President Trump’s tweets add an unforeseen wrinkle, with Defense officials saying for the time being, they will proceed as planned. Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Dana M. White said the DOD was “awaiting formal guidance from the White House” and would provide guidance to the department in the future, while saying business would continue as usual while the department ensured “that all service members would be treated with respect.”
With the ensuing confusion, it remains to be seen how the potential ban could affect transgender individuals currently enrolled at military academies, as well as those considering an educational and professional career in military service. The numbers of transgender service members vary, ranging from 6,000 in the RAND study to 15,500, according to an analysis by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. It is unknown how many transgender students are currently enrolled in the military academies, but a potential ban could have a significant impact on the culture and enrollment at some schools, as well as for transgender young adults who were considering a career in the military after Secretary Carter lifted the ban in 2016. Carter, who now is the Director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, expressed concern about the potential impact of the bill.
“To choose service members on other grounds than military qualifications is social policy and has no place in our military,” he said. “There are already transgender individuals who are serving capably and honorably. This action would also send the wrong signal to a younger generation thinking about military service.”
Courtney D’Allaird, the founder of the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center at the University at Albany in New York, said transgender youth could be enticed by a path in the military for a variety of options, from economic to having a familial history with enlisting and serving. The transgender ban could change that trajectory, leading students away from enrolling and enlisting in the schools, even if they were not necessarily serving openly.
“The largest implications is the prestige. Going into the military, the honor of that of fighting for your country, from your family and from your community from being in the academy, and thinking of that as your trajectory; the message to that person has always been ‘work hard and you’ll get what you deserve,’” D’Allaird noted. “It’s a ban on our existence, to have access to our military, and the pride and the prestige and the honor of it. Unfortunately, it sends a message to the leader of the academies that this is how you deal with difference. You tweet and you ban them.”
D’Allaird also expressed concern that the atmosphere at military academies could become akin to a witch hunt seeking transgender students who may not have disclosed the information. In the immediate, clarification seems essential; military officials have stated that Trump’s tweets on military policy do not denote a policy shift, but they will implement a change in policy if ordered. D’Allaird also asserted that schools should continue to support transgender students by instilling policies and a culture that respects all who are enrolled (per the original order issued by Sec. Carter, the schools still should be working towards instituting a system and approach in which all can serve openly). The institutional hierarchy of the military made dissention regarding the exclusionary treatment that might follow the President’s tweets particularly difficult for upper administrative officials in the military academies, D’Allaird said. But there still could be options, opportunities and ways officials could show support for transgender students currently enrolled.
“You could actively speak out for inclusion,” D'Allaird said. “I understand it’s different as a part of the military, but you can say you still respect every person here, and not say that this is a witch hunt. Because that’s what we’ve opened the door to."