US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

Washington — Five members of the US armed forces are suing US President Donald Trump and top military brass, seeking to stop them from banning transgender people from serving "in any capacity".

With the latest lawsuit, which seeks to prevent the president from reversing a policy put in place by the Obama administration, a federal judge is once again being asked to referee a clash in the country’s escalating culture war. Since Trump took office in January, the administration has engaged in legal battles over shifts in policy involving immigration and gay rights.

The service members, who are suing anonymously, are already members of the Army, Air Force and Coast Guard. They say they disclosed their gender orientation relying on the existing policy that permits them to serve openly.

The shift announced by Trump on Twitter on July 26 violates the US Constitution, the service members said in a complaint filed on Wednesday in federal court in Washington. The change hasn’t yet been implemented.

"We do not comment on active or pending litigation," the White House press office said in an e-mail. Defence department spokesperson Dana White has said the Pentagon is still awaiting formal guidance from the White House.

US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford Jr, who is chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a named defendant in the case, acknowledged the uncertainty engendered by the president’s announcement. "I know there are questions about yesterday’s announcement on the transgender policy by the president," Dunford said on July 27. "There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president’s direction has been received by the secretary of defence and the secretary has issued implementation guidance. In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect."

Understanding the debate over transgender rights

The lead plaintiff, who identifies herself as Jane Doe 1, has submitted a prospective letter of resignation to the Coast Guard, stating she’d rather walk away voluntarily than be terminated because of her gender, according to the complaint. Doe 1 said she’d withdraw the resignation if the administration abandons its plan.

Three other Jane Doe plaintiffs serve in the US Army, including Doe 3, who has already served in Afghanistan and "expects to be deployed to Iraq soon", according to the filing. The fifth plaintiff is a 20-year US Air Force veteran, who has served two tours of duty in Iraq.

"Jane Doe 5’s livelihood depends on her military service. Separation from the military would have devastating financial and emotional consequences for her," according to the complaint.

Trump’s contemplated reversal would violate the US constitution’s guarantee of equal protection and has no rational basis, the plaintiffs allege. It would also deprive them of their military careers without due process, according to the lawsuit.

Treatment of transgender people has become a flash point in the US culture war as social conservatives lead fights in some states to require students and sometimes adults to use school and public restrooms corresponding to their gender at birth.

In a three-part Tweet, Trump outlined his reasoning for reversing the Obama policy on transgenders in the military. "After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US Military. Our military must be focused on the decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you."

The Military Times pointed out that the cost of providing Viagra to members of the armed forces is at least 10 times the costs associated with gender re-assignment.

The service members’ lawsuit was filed by attorneys from the Washington-based WilmerHale law firm, Boston-based Foley Hoag and the National Centre for Lesbian Rights. Also named as defendants are secretary of defence James Mattis, acting secretary of the army Ryan McCarthy, and Air Force secretary Heather Wilson.

"Besides the harm to the service members and people who want to enlist, what’s most upsetting about this is for the transgender kids out there in society, for their president to say that they are inherently a disruption, that they shouldn’t be able to serve," said Jon Davidson, a director of the advocacy group Lambda Legal, who isn’t involved in the service members’ lawsuit. "That’s a terrible message to be sending to young people."

The case is Doe 1 v Trump, 17-cv-1597 US District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

Bloomberg

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