The Supreme Court's ruling that President Donald Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military can stay for now has renewed debate about the controversial policy.
On Jan. 22, a divided court let the ban stand temporarily, 5-4. Trump imposed the ban in 2017, leading to challenges in federal court. The year before, then President Barack Obama had lifted the military's longstanding ban. The Pentagon is not enforcing the ban for now, as the Supreme Court has not yet made a final ruling on the issue. One lower court injunction against the ban also remains in place. But while the court battles continue, some veterans are growing concerned.
Supporters of allowing transgender people to serve say the ban will cause the military to lose talent and force transgender people in uniform to hide their true identity. Those who back the ban say having transgender people in the ranks undermines military readiness.
According to the Transgender American Veterans Association, 15,000 transgender soldiers are on active duty. The group estimates there are more than 160,000 transgender veterans.
“My higher power played tricks on me,” Rebecca Jeen McDonald, a transgender woman and a disabled veteran, told WGBH News. “Couldn’t decide whether I was going to be male or female, so he decided to make me both.”
McDonald, a Boston resident, joined the Air Force in 1973 and spent seven years as a heavy equipment mechanic. She said the job was hard, but pretending to be someone she wasn’t was even harder.
“All it was, I just did my job,” McDonald, who stands at nearly six feet tall, said. “I had to dress male all the time, no matter what. That’s all we could do. As the years went on, my feelings got worse, and it led to drinking.”
McDonald said “living a lie” led to alcoholism and coming out as transgender was crucial to her recovery. She now leads a support group for transgender veterans.
McDonald predicted the ban will rob the military of talent and force people to go back to living in secrecy to avoid being discharged. The life of secrecy would be much like that of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals before the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was lifted in 2011.
“I don’t care who you are, what you are, what color you are, what size, the whole works — if you are able to do the job, you should do the job,” she said.
On the other side of the debate, Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, told WGBH News that allowing transgender people in the military complicates the already challenging work of defending the country.
“Biology is not bigotry,” said Beckwith, a former Marine. “The commander-in-chief’s policy reflects both the biological reality of our services members and our need for military readiness.”
Beckwith, whose organization fought against the 2018 ballot Question 3 that assured transgender people in Massachusetts access to public accommodations, argued conflicts around gender identity could get in the way of a soldier’s ability to serve.
“In the military, the priority is not political or ideological innovation,” Beckwith said. “It’s defending our country, and so we have very high standards for physical fitness and readiness.”
McDonald suggested the impact could spread far beyond the military. She said after years of progress, this current ban will send a larger signal that it’s okay to discriminate against transgender people.
“As far as I am concerned, President Trump has put a target on our backs,” McDonald said as she looked at an Air Force blanket spread over her bed.
This article has been updated.