WASHINGTON — Kora Delta was one of thousands of U.S. troops who helped evacuate more than 100,000 people from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. The mission came as she was awaiting gender-affirming care, a few months after the Biden administration announced that transgender people could serve openly in the military, reversing a Trump-era policy.
“I still put my best foot forward and we still got those people out of that country,” said Delta, an Air Force command and control battle management operator. “I was at my worst. I still acted for my country.”
Delta is one of the thousands of openly transgender service members who would be prohibited from serving in the military as part of new legislation introduced in Congress.
The legislation, dubbed the Ensuring Military Readiness Act and introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would largely disqualify transgender individuals from serving in the military; companion legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) is being considered in the House this week. Rubio has long been a vocal opponent of policies that aim to increase diversity or protect LGBTQ people from discrimination.
While the legislation has little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate and becoming law, it represents an ever-present spectre of policy reversal hanging over the transgender community. If a conservative Republican captures the White House in 2024, they could use executive action, as the Trump administration did, to re-impose the ban.
Transgender service members and veterans say the whiplash in policy over the last six years — from the Trump-era ban to the Biden administration revoking it to the new legislation — has taken a toll on their financial stability, mental wellness and long-term planning.
David Stacy, who leads the federal policy team at the nonprofit advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, said Republicans are also likely to propose amendments on the issue during the debate on the annual defense policy bill later this year. However, he said Democrats in the upper chamber would likely block any action on transgender military service.
“The bottom line is we don’t expect this bill to move, although who knows if the House Republicans decide to bring it to the floor,” Stacy said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we would have a majority of both chambers that would be in favor of continuing the effective current policy and not making a change here.”
As the House Armed Services Committee decides whether to move companion legislation forward in the House, its personnel subcommittee is also set to hear testimony from military leaders on related issues Thursday, signaling that the military’s diversity policies remain a top issue for Republicans.
The hearing, titled “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Impacts to the Department of Defense and the Armed Services,” will focus on the impact of DEI policy on the military’s readiness, lethality, and cohesion, per the committee.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), one of the bill’s original cosponsors, contends that allowing transgender people to serve sows division within the military.
“We’ve got to go by an agenda that people understand, that they believe in, and I think this has caused us problems,” Tuberville said. “You know, being a former coach and coaching teams, you don’t need anything that causes division. I think this is gonna cause division.”
After former President Donald Trump tweeted his opposition to allowing transgender people to serve in July 2017 and later followed through, his administration faced a wave of legal challenges from civil rights organizations challenging the ban. With the approval of the Supreme Court, transgender people were largely prohibited from enlisting in the military beginning in April 2019, and those already serving were mostly required to serve in their sex assigned at birth.
One of President Joe Biden’s first executive actions upon taking office in 2021 was to repeal the ban and prohibit discharges from the military based on gender identity. Since 2021, transgender individuals have been able to serve openly in the military, but many say the fight is far from over.
The legislation introduced by Banks and Rubio comes on the heels of a wave of state bills from Republican elected officials targeting transgender people, including bans on participation in school sports and barriers to gender-affirming care.
“This is part and parcel of a larger legislative effort we are seeing across the country in various states to exclude transgender people and write them out of equal access to very public spaces or healthcare,” said Kara Ingelhart, a senior attorney at LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal. “That’s incredibly harmful to the entire community and everyone who loves and supports them, especially young people who are looking up at elected officials for an example of how to be and how to envision their futures.”
The bill faces an uphill battle in both the Senate and the House, where Republicans hold a narrow majority.
Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who was an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s policy, said Republicans should be ashamed of themselves for attacking transgender service members.
“The trans troop ban is a bigoted and ignorant policy that is a slap in the face to courageous trans Americans who serve and seek to serve our country in uniform,” Wexton said in a statement to Medill News Service.
Biden is also expected to veto the legislation if it were to make its way through Congress, but Ingelhart said simply debating the validity of gender identity does harm to transgender individuals, who are at higher risk for mental health challenges.
Studies have found that transgender individuals are up to six times as likely as the general population to have been hospitalized for a suicide attempt.
The bill’s opponents argue that banning transgender people, who are about twice as likely as the general population to have served in the military, excludes a critical population from enlisting when the armed forces are consistently struggling to meet recruitment goals. The Army missed its goal last year by 25%.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said the bill has the potential to impede military strength.
“This legislation imposes a baseless and discriminatory restriction that harms our national security,” Ellis said in a statement to Medill News Service. “Transgender Americans have been serving openly for years and their service and sacrifice make our military and our entire country stronger.”
Research undertaken in 2020 by the Palm Center, an independent think tank that focused on LGBTQ+military issues, concluded that the Trump-era ban harmed military readiness by impeding recruitment, retention, cohesion and morale in the military, in addition to hurting the military’s reputation.
Those who support the proposed ban argue that the issue is discouraging many potential recruits from enlisting. Conservatives are also slamming Biden’s reversal as one of many unneeded diversity initiatives pushed by the Pentagon.
Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the American Principles Project, a conservative think tank that has endorsed Rubio’s bill, said people from the South who disproportionately join the military are skeptical of new policies such as the Biden administration’s stance on transgender service.
“We want to make sure we have a full fighting force,” Schweppe said. “But I would actually posit that this direction the military has gone, which is very out of step with the American people… and probably hurting recruitment numbers.”
A RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Department of Defense in 2015 found that “there has been no significant effect of openly serving transgender service members on cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness” in 18 foreign countries.
Transgender service members and veterans, however, note the benefits they offer the military, including diversity of perspectives.
Alleria Stanley, director of communications at SPARTA, a transgender military advocacy organization, said allowing transgender people to serve strengthens the military beyond just expanding the recruiting pool.
“There are no negative impacts to our deployability, and the diversity that we bring brings increased readiness and increased lethality,” said Stanley, who served in the Army for 20 years. “By our diversity, we increase additional ideas, perspectives and insights from our unique points of view.”
Delta also said that, in addition to the diversity brought by transgender service members, permitting them to serve openly allows troops to serve to the best of their ability.
“Once people transition and become their true selves, there’s not a mental block that they have. They can be their true selves” Delta said. “With that they become exceptional. They soar above everyone else. They become absolute rock stars. They become an even better, stronger, faster, more intellectual performer than they previously were.”
In making the argument that allowing transgender people to serve harms military strength, conservatives have also likened gender dysphoria to other physical and mental conditions that disqualify individuals from enlisting, such as peanut allergies and ADHD.
“Americans who were treated for ADHD in the past two years must receive a waiver to enlist,” Banks said in a statement about the new bill. “Our military holds recruits to stringent medical standards for a reason and the Biden administration’s special carveout for those suffering from gender dysphoria was purely political.”
Danni Askini, co-executive director of national programs at Gender Justice League, said this comparison runs contrary to the current consensus in the scientific community.
The American Psychological Association and the World Health Organization no longer classify gender dysphoria as a mental disorder, and the American Medical Association explains transgender identities as “normal variations of human identity and expression.”
“It’s specious and frankly disgusting that people would try to liken being a transgender person to having a disease. [It] shows an immense amount of ignorance about — and a lack of relationship to — transgender people,” Askini said.
It remains unclear whether culture war issues like restricting the ability of trans people to participate in sports or seek gender-affirming care as minors is a winning issue for Republicans. Even as many Republican candidates highlighted these issues in the 2022 midterm elections, less than 5% of voters surveyed by the Human Rights Campaign after the elections identified them as motivators at the ballot box.
Stacy said that in the midterm election cycle, the salience of transgender issues diminished significantly from Republican primaries to general elections, noting the tenacity of public support for allowing transgender people to serve in the military.
Public opinion polling has consistently found that a substantial majority of Americans — including veterans, military families and active duty troops — support allowing transgender individuals to serve.
While Schweppe acknowledged that Democrats have at times succeeded at framing the debate over transgender military service in a way that benefits them, he remains confident Republicans will ultimately win voters over on the issue.
“Ultimately, when we’re talking about fighting what I would call a really dangerous and destructive ideology, I think we are winning, in large part because once people know the consequences of how this has been impacting society, how this is impacting kids, schools, all that, they really don’t like it,” he said.
As the future of transgender military service comes under debate, though, advocates say troops’ economic stability and freedom to pursue their plans are threatened.
Askini pointed out the importance of military service as an economic opportunity and a stabilizing force for many people, including transgender troops. With estimates placing the number of transgender people serving in the military around 15,000 as of 2018, the military remains the largest employer of transgender people in the country.
Specialist Adrian Daniel, the first transgender person to transition in the Mississippi Army National Guard, said he hopes to remain in service for the foreseeable future but could not continue to do so if he were forced to serve in his sex assigned at birth.
“It really made my heart drop because I want to retire out of the military,” Daniel said of the new legislation. “And that’s always been my dream. But at the same time, I’m not going to fight for a country that’s taken my rights away.”
Activists said transgender people should not be dissuaded by elected officials who aim to limit their ability to serve.
“There are activists and lawyers who are out there who are going to fight these fights and people should continue to make the plans that they want to make, pursue their dreams and pursue their careers and opportunities without having to fear or think about stupid legislation like this, because it will never become law,” Askini said. “We will never let it.”