Serving in the U.S. military is a privilege, not a right. Not everyone who wishes to serve can be allowed to do so, for a variety of reasons -- age, physical and mental fitness, education, and legal status, to name a few. The purpose of the military is not to advance a social or political agenda but to defend the nation. These simple truths seem to be lost in the debate stirred by President Donald Trump's clumsy and ill-timed announcement via Twitter that transgender individuals are no longer allowed to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
The decision to allow transgender people to serve in the military in the first place was barely 2 years old -- unthinkable even a decade ago. In 2015, President Barack Obama's secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, announced that the Pentagon would move to allow transgender individuals to serve openly in the military. But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Obama administration's stance was the announcement in June 2016 that the military would provide medical treatment for those service members seeking hormone treatment and plastic surgery to change their sex.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, gender dysphoria "is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition." It seems fair to say, however, that those who choose to undergo the painful surgeries and lifelong hormonal treatments necessary to transition their sex don't do so lightly but are indeed experiencing significant distress. The question isn't whether transgender individuals have the right to live as they choose -- they do -- but that does not mean they have a right to serve in the military.
All sorts of physical and mental conditions preclude military service. The reasons vary, but the underlying assumption is that any condition that might make deployment and combat readiness more difficult justifies excluding certain individuals. Everything from asthma to plantar fasciitis may be disqualifying, depending on when the individual experienced the condition and its severity, and some medical conditions, such as diabetes, are automatically so. But so are common mental conditions. People who suffer from depression or other mood disorders -- even adults with attention deficit disorder -- can be excluded.
The military rejects these individuals not out of prejudice but because their conditions complicate the mission of the military. Individuals who require medication on a daily basis are more difficult to deploy in a wartime situation. Someone who has diabetes quickly becomes a liability on the battlefield when there isn't access to proper food or insulin or other medication. Transgender individuals require hormone treatments for the rest of their lives after transitioning. What happens when a transgender soldier runs out of male or female hormone replacement treatments while deployed? How long would a transsexual be unable to deploy while recovering from surgery?
Those who are expressing outrage that the Trump administration is reverting to the policy barring transgender individuals from service that existed prior to two years ago seem more than a little disingenuous. Some 29 million Americans have diabetes; another 25 million have asthma. But I don't remember anyone suggesting that these individuals are being discriminated against because they cannot serve in the military.
President Obama lifted restrictions against transgender people in the military, and President Trump has decided to impose those restrictions again. These are policy decisions -- and both presidents were within their authority to make them. President Trump bungled the decision to change course. He did it as he does everything, impulsively, without proper consideration for its implementation or how it affects individuals who are already in the military. Twitter is no way to issue orders as commander in chief.
It is certainly fair to ask why he did it now. Was it a way to distract from other issues? With this president, who knows? He says he talked to the generals, but few of them are coming forward to confirm any discussions, and the Pentagon was left flat-footed.
Once again, the president is setting up the dynamics for failure. Perhaps this is a bone thrown to those in his base in anticipation of disappointing them on another front. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, stay tuned.