On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump called for transgender people to be banned from military service in the US.
Trump tweeted that he consulted his “generals and military experts” before deciding that the government will not “accept or allow” transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US military.
After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
….Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
….victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2017
But what does this mean for transgender Australians serving in the Australian Defence Force?
Host of Tell Me It’s Going To Be Ok podcast Mia Freedman asked journalist Catherine McGregor, who was previously the most senior transgender military officer in the country.
MIA: Cate, how are you feeling about this? As a trans woman with such a long military history, today’s announcement by Trump must be upsetting.
CATE: I’m not entirely surprised. There’s been a lot of speculation he would do this and there’s been a war on transgendered people in the United States for a long time about use of bathrooms and a moral panic about the visibility of transgender people in Trump’s constituency for a while. So you know I get hurt and I get disappointed by this stuff. But I’m pretty resilient.
MIA: What the current status for transgender men and women serving in the Australian Defence Force.
CATE: Well, along with 18 of America’s allies or perhaps 19 now, trans service is accepted and it’s protected under law. That policy in Australia changed in 2010 and only a small number of personnel are involved. I haven’t got a raw number on how many trans people are serving in the Australian Defence Force at the moment but I suspect it would be fewer than 20.
When I was in my last year of service I think there were about 17 openly trans individuals serving and the arguments that are mounted by the president of the United States are largely rebutted by the reality of those people’s service. The people that I served alongside filled a number of employment categories including combat roles as air defence guards and so on which involved a fairly dangerous and potentially lethal work and there was one male to female transwoman deployed to Afghanistan in one of those roles.
The other people were mainly in non combat roles but they were in noncombat roles before they transitioned and after a period of adjustment that involved some medical treatment they just returned to work and got on with work. So as I understand it most of them are fully capable of fulfilling their employment category and serving on.
MIA: In Trump’s tweets announcing this shift and in effect reversing the legislation that Obama enacted midway through last year permitting transgender men and women to serve in the military, he referred to the “cost and disruption” caused by trans people. What was he talking about?
CATE: Well, the case I’m most familiar with of course is male to female transgenderism which can involve psychiatric support, diagnosis, may involve hormone therapy, some kind of ongoing therapeutic support to deal with the anxiety and other ancillary conditions around gender dysphoria. But again, in my experience, most people find that their most pressing symptoms subside when they actually openly express their gender and get on with work. These surgical arguments I think are really overwrought and hysterical in that the most salacious aspect of gender reassignment, or transition process is surgery and it’s about fashioning genitals in their affirmed gender.
That’s a surgical procedure that is relatively expensive, but we’re talking a drop in the bucket in the broader United States military budget. Really, it’s not even a drop in the bucket, it’s a drop in the ocean, frankly! I saw a figure today asserting that the United States military provides viagra at five times the cost of gender reassignment medical support.
Now, I haven’t got the source for that; it’s been tweeted all over the Twitter-sphere and it may be wrong. But the bottom line is this – medical support to any serving individual in any of the militaries with which we are allied is taken as a condition of service. And it’s just to restore you at earliest opportunity to full military capability. That’s all that’s ever undertaken to do. It’s not about providing cosmetic benefits or anything else, it’s about providing surgery to allow you to perform your job and get on with it. And in the case of gender surgery, you know, people hang their hat on this argument but it’s hysterical and it’s overwrought, compared to say, you ought to discharge every person who has a cancer diagnosis.
That would be incredibly demoralising to think that the military walks away from its loyal serving members when they encounter a medical treatment issue. And I’ve served alongside people who’ve died from cancer and I’ve served alongside people who have recovered from cancer. And in every case the military families stood behind them.
If someone’s undergoing gender transition, I’ve not heard any rank and file objection to that in my service. It’s mainly the domain of keyboard warriors and culture warriors outside the military, none of whom have served.
MIA: Trump talks about “disruption” and I guess that taps into what you describe. But I assume that as long as your military personnel are human, they are going to have health issues and various things that are going to happen in their lives – emotional issues that will be disruptive at some time or another.
CATE: Absolutely. In any given group of people, especially those doing physical work and high stress work you can have any number of emotional conditions.
You have people who get injured during physical training or during deployments. Just in their normal training that a military unit (especially a combat unit) does at any one time. You’ve got people incapable of doing their full physical employment category, and the system manages that as well, in that if you are unable to return to duty within an identifiable period then you get medically discharged.
But I am cautious about this. In all the cases of the trans people I know, they’ve had a period where they weren’t at their full medical capability and employment category and they were put into a holding category, as I was, and then they were returned to full medical capability when when appropriate, which generally is not all that long term.
I’ve known of people with other completely unrelated conditions. It’s just normal, people with cancer diagnoses and people who had substance abuse issues and all kinds of people with medical problems of various degrees who have had sustained periods being reclassified medically. So it’s just the way the military does business. To single out transition issues just shows you the mindset of [the Trump] administration.
It’s using trans people again as a fairly marginal issue to generate enthusiasm amongst its base. And you know it’s an empty argument, it really is. You know, numbers of trans personnel as a proportion of the US military, the amount of expenditure as a portion of the US budget, is infinitesimal frankly.
But a vital principle gets thrown out using that bogus argument and that is a really important principle in a country like the United States or in a country like Australia and that is that any suitably qualified citizen should be entitled to serve in the military force of the country that has come down to us from the ancient Greeks – it’s called civic militarism and it’s been the cornerstone of the Western military experience for hundreds of years now.
LISTEN: Listen to Mia’s full interview with Cate McGregor on the Tell Me It’s Going To Be OK podcast (post continues after audio…)
MIA: How does this play out next? I’ve heard it estimated it’s it’s around 15,000 out of a total of 1.3 million military personnel who would be classified or consider themselves openly trans. What happens to them now?
CATE: Well, Mia, this is the whole issue about the way this president uses Twitter to make policy on the run. The reporting at this point – this is still less than 24 hours old, although it has been looming for some time. But no one knows what the mechanics of the policy is. I think in his own mind he thinks he’s going to be precluding people enlisting.
But there will be an issue now that he said they can’t serve in any capacity. So that implies that those currently serving will be discharged. And again if they’re are to be discharged in this arbitrary fashion then presumably they have to be dishonourably discharged. There has to be some finding or some policy change… what they will attempt to do is to ground this as a mental disorder again and that will be open to challenge I presume because the diagnostic manual does not support that anymore. So I think there could be litigation ahead of this.
But [Trump] does have a certain amount of discretionary power as the Commander in Chief through executive orders. It’s just fairly typical of the haphazard way in which so many of these announcements are made. You know, it is a complex area and unscrambling it’s going to be very very difficult. But I can’t see how you just turn around and arbitrarily, dishonourably discharge someone.
But then that may be an option that the military have. I would think they would run significant risks of litigation to dishonourably discharged an individual whose service was otherwise effective, in the absence of some other overarching reason. We’’ll have to see what the specifics of any policy from here are.
MIA: You went public with your transition later in your life. You’d been in the military for how long before that?
CATE: Well, on and off since 1974, my cumulative service is about 25 years, I think, so there had been a substantial investment in me by that stage. Training me and progressing me through the ranks and I’d had an exemplary reporting history, I might add. I had longer, in fact, in hospital during my military career from rugby injuries than I ever did from transgender issues.
Although I have to say that probably being totally honest about it, I never returned fully to my pre-transition effectiveness afterwards. But in some ways, I wasn’t required to. I never served in a regimental environment again, I never served as an infantry officer again.
MIA: Did you want to?
CATE: Ah no I didn’t. I was past that. In fact the bottom line on it for me, Mia, was that I had actually chosen to leave the military before I transitioned. And was implored to stay by David Morrison when he was appointed chief of the Army. I’d reached 55 and was ready to go.
MIA: It's not an easy route to take. Transitioning within that sort of hyper masculine environment.
CATE: Yeah, my colleagues were in the main fairly accepting. I'm not going to labour the point [but] I wish I had transitioned outside. My life would have been a lot easier. Because I did better most of the cost burden myself. I didn't get an enormous amount of taxpayer funded support. And I chose to do it that way because I knew, because of my profile this would be controversial.
And having said that my life would have been much easier, because a large amount of the backlash against my gender transition is purely because my transition was linked to characterisations of Australian manhood, and it was very polarising and it hit the buttons of a lot of very insecure people.
MIA: Just finally - you know, the American military used to have a “don't ask don't tell” policy around gay people in the armed services until that was overturned a number of years ago. Do you think that's what we're going to go back to? Because I guess my point was that you didn't transition until the end - towards the end of your military career so there were many years in which you knew you were trans and you didn't come out publicly.
CATE: Yeah. Absolutely!
MIA: One can only assume there are many many thousands of serving military personnel in America who are now going to have to do the same - either leave the military or just shut up.
CATE: Yes, look, that WILL happen. Undoubtedly, people who value their career and have no other option will stay and serve. Probably in considerable emotional and mental distress, which is ironic since the president has said this is about operational effectiveness. I can assure you when you are suffering from gender dysphoria, you are not effective in anything that you're doing. The repetitive and compulsive thinking is just very, very distressing and it's debilitating. And, you know, the most effective treatment for gender dysphoria is gender transition- and people then go on and lead productive lives.
Now, the military is a difficult case, and I completely get why it's so contested and so fraught. But the United States now has a real public policy issue here. It’s got currently serving members, some of whom might be quite key or have indispensable roles. It has a number of people who clearly probably haven't come out yet and it’ll either lose their service or they'll serve ineffectively or less effectively than they otherwise might.
So it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over time. I think long term, it's inevitable that the United States will eventually regularise transgender service as part of maintaining a broad spectrum force that picks the most suitable and best people. You know, if you've got no other reason for disqualifying someone from their service apart from their gender identity, then it's just not viable.
You then will be turning away people who may well go on to have decent careers. You know the evidence I've seen from friends of mine -I have a friend who is an RAF pilot, who served with distinction and you know, highly trained, a massive investment in that woman. And it would have been a loss to the RAF [had she left], and they had no problems and she returned to work and flew effectively and continues to fly in the national police service.
Another friend of mine is a British army officer. She's an exceptional young woman who served and including on operations. I could go on... you know, case studies tend to support trans service.
In fact in many ways I was probably the most problematic of any of them. I was very visible and it led to a lot of, you know, a lot of disruptive attacks on me which made me less effective than I otherwise might have been. I look back on the whole sorry episode and regret not leaving earlier.
MIA: You’re problematic Cate!
MIA: All the best women are described as problematic. You and me both, my friend.
CATE: Oh, absolutely.
MIA: Hey, listen, thank you so much. It feels like like a little step back but I look forward to continuing to see big strides forward for the trans community. Led, no doubt, by you. Thank you.
CATE: Ahh We'll see. Thanks Mia.
Mamamia contacted a spokesperson from the Australian Defence Force, who reaffirmed their commitment to protecting trans people in the Australian military.
"The announcement made overnight is a matter for US policy makers. The ADF remains committed to its current policies supporting a diverse, inclusive and highly capable workforce."