On his first full day on the job, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin threw out one of former President Trump’s worst policies: the ban on transgender military personnel. In overturning the old policy, Austin followed through with his promise from his confirmation hearing the week before.
“President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” the White House said in an emailed statement. “This question of how to enable all qualified Americans to serve in the military is easily answered by recognizing our core values. America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive. The military is no exception. Allowing all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform is better for the military and better for the country because an inclusive force is a more effective force. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do and is in our national interest.”
In lifting the ban, Austin is following through on one of President Biden’s campaign promises. Biden had promised to end the ban on his first day in office, but the delay in having Austin approved as Defense Secretary resulted in a five-day lag.
Along with Biden’s executive order fighting anti-LGBTQ discrimination, the end of the ban sends a loud and early signal about the administration’s commitment to LGBTQ rights.
Trump announced the ban via tweet in 2017. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail,” Trump declared.
The complaint about costs was a canard, of course. The real reason Trump made the move was to please his anti-LGBTQ base. For Trump, there was the added benefit of undoing something President Obama had done.
What followed was typical Trumpian chaos. How the ban would be implemented was unclear, since Trump had given the Pentagon virtually no heads up that his tweet was coming.
The announcement met with immediate opposition from Democrats and even some Republicans. Even Sen. John McCain, who dragged his feet over the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, called it “a step in the wrong direction.” All four service chiefs also signaled their support for transgender service members.
The courts also ruled against Trump and the ban. By 2018, the administration went back to the drawing board. This time, Vice President Mike Pence and anti-transgender activists Ryan Anderson and Tony Perkins helped shape a new approach. The holier-than-thou trio were leaders in the religious right, and they made sure Trump’s base was getting the attack on trans rights that it wanted.
This time around, the revised policy was able to succeed because the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the administration, overturning rulings against the ban from lower courts. As a result, the ban took effect in April 2019. It effectively prohibited trans people from enlisting and put multiple restrictions on trans military personnel already serving.
The ban served no purpose other than to please Trump’s anti-LGBTQ base. A Pentagon-funded survey of military members found that two-thirds supported trans military personnel, giving the lie to the excuse that their presence was a problem for military readiness. Attempts by Congress to overturn the ban were stymied because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to allow the measure to come up for a vote.
With Austin’s announcement, the ban will soon be gone. But during its brief tenure, the ban caused untold pain and hardship for trans military personnel. It also proved that progress can be fleeting.
For the Biden administration, ending the ban is a relatively easy win. What will be harder will be delivering on some of the administration’s other campaign promises.