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 “Ensuring Military Readiness Act”, introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), would largely disqualify transgender individuals from serving in the military; companion legislation is being considered in the House this week.
While the legislation has little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate and becoming law, it represents the 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 similar 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. “Being a former coach and coaching teams, you don’t need anything that causes division. I think this is gonna cause division.”
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 — per a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality — 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%.
“The military had another year in a row where they’re not meeting their recruitment numbers,” said Kara Ingelhart, a senior attorney at LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal. “So if you’re saying a bunch of folks who are eligible and able and capable are not welcome when you are in need of volunteers, that would necessarily impact your readiness in sheer numbers.
Research from 2020 by the Palm Center, a 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 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 is very out of step with the American people… and probably hurting recruitment numbers.”
Transgender service members and veterans, however, note the benefits they offer the military, including diversity of perspectives.
“There are no negative impacts to our deployability, and the diversity that we bring brings increased readiness and increased lethality,” said Alleria Stanley, a 20-year Army veteran who currently serves as director of communications at SPARTA, a transgender military advocacy organization. “By our diversity, we increase additional ideas, perspectives and insights from our unique points of view.”
As the future of transgender military service comes under debate, though, advocates say troops’ economic stability and freedom to pursue their plans are threatened. 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.”
Danni Askini, co-executive director of national programs at Gender Justice League, a nonprofit advocacy group, said many transgender people may well choose to hide their identity to continue serving if future legislation or executive action bans open military service again. But Delta said that would be a loss for the military.
“Once people transition and become their true selves, there’s not a mental block,” she 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.”