US Senator John McCain, pictured in Mexico City, Mexico, in December 2016. Picture: REUTERS
US Senator John McCain, pictured in Mexico City, Mexico, in December 2016. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday that he will ban transgender people from serving "in any capacity" in the US military, reversing his predecessor’s policy to let them serve openly in the ranks.

The announcement by Trump, in a series of early morning tweets, seemed to catch Pentagon officials and key members of congress off-guard. It served as a temporary change of topics after Trump provoked criticism from social conservatives and southern senators with his continuing public disparagement of attorney-general Jeff Sessions, the most prominent cultural traditionalist in his cabinet.

"After consultation with my generals and military experts, please be advised that the US government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US Military," Trump said in three tweets on Wednesday. "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."

Treatment of transgender people has become one of the flashpoints in the clash over values in the public sphere, with social conservatives leading fights in some states to require that students use school restrooms corresponding to their gender at birth. In last year’s campaign, Trump actively sought out socially conservative voters while also promising to "fight for" the gay and transgender community.

Trump added emphasis later in the day, tweeting in all capital letters, a line that he’s used frequently at rallies with evangelical audiences: "IN AMERICA WE DON’T WORSHIP GOVERNMENT — WE WORSHIP GOD."

‘Vile and hateful’

The decision drew criticism from some conservative Republicans as well as Democrats. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi blasted Trump’s action as "vile and hateful" and said in a statement that it would "blindside thousands of patriotic Americans already serving with honour and bravery". She noted the announcement came on the anniversary of president Harry S Truman’s 1948 order ending racial segregation in the military.

"I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone," Republican senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said in a statement. "I look forward to getting much more information and clarity from our military leaders about the policy the president tweeted today."

Trump offered no details on his decision, such as how transgender personnel already in the military would be treated. "The president’s tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter," senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a Vietnam War hero, said in a statement. He said transgender personnel already in the military who meet current "medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving" and be "treated as the patriots they are".

Opportunity to serve

Another military veteran in congress, senator Joni Ernst, also broke with Trump. A statement from her office said that while the Iowa Republican "believes taxpayers shouldn’t cover the costs associated with gender reassignment surgery, Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity".

White House spokespersons didn’t immediately respond to questions about the new policy. A defence official, who asked for anonymity when discussing internal deliberations, said that the Pentagon was notified of Trump’s decision on Tuesday night, but a defence department spokesman said the Pentagon hadn’t determined yet the implications of Trump’s decision for military personnel.

"We refer all questions about the president’s statements to the White House," navy captain Jeff Davis, a department spokesperson, said in an e-mailed statement. "We will continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the commander-in-chief on transgender individuals serving the military. We will provide revised guidance to the department in the near future."

Policy delayed

In June, defence secretary James Mattis had delayed, for six months, the next step in the 2016 Obama-era plan to open the military to transgender people, which had called for the armed services to begin accepting new recruits who are openly transgender by July 1. Mattis said the time was needed so military leaders could study the impact.

This month, the Republican-led house rejected an effort to block the Pentagon from paying for gender transition surgeries and hormone therapy, with 24 Republican lawmakers joining Democrats in opposition. The military began paying for gender-transition medical care last October 1 under the Obama-era policy. The issue may come up again if the senate begins debating the annual defence authorisation bill next week.

"No American, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be prohibited from honor + privilege of serving our nation #LGBT," Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who has a transgender child, said in a tweet.

Mattis’s predecessor, Ash Carter, issued a policy in June 2016 allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military. "This is the right thing to do for our people and for the force," Carter said at the time. "We’re talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission."

It’s not clear exactly how many people will be affected by the new Trump policy. The Rand Corporation estimated there were between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender individuals actively serving in the military, out of 1.3-million service members.

The 2016 study estimated that medical treatments for transgender service members could cost $2.4m to $8.4m a year, an increase of 0.13% in military health costs.

Last month, the defence department celebrated LGBT Pride Month, highlighting the contributions of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. "The struggles, sacrifices and successes among the LGBT community continue to shape our history and remind us to uphold tolerance and justice for all," Anthony M Kurta, acting undersecretary of defence for personnel and readiness, wrote in a June 2 memo to the department.


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