President Donald Trump’s order banning transgender troops from serving in the military alarmed top military and civilian defense officials. But a little-known provision may give the Pentagon a way to get around parts of Trump’s order and allow some trans troops who are currently serving to stay in the military.
Trump’s memo, issued on August 25, gives Secretary of Defense James Mattis broad authority to determine which trans people already in the military should be kicked out.
One metric Mattis could use to determine who can stay and who has to go is something called “deployability.” Deployability is a service member’s ability to serve in a war zone, participate in military exercises, or live on a ship for months. This is different from other metrics like readiness, which looks at a military unit’s ability to carry out a mission.
There’s so far no evidence that trans people are less deployable than other troops. In fact, there are thousands of troops who are already considered nondeployable, so it’s hard to argue deployability problems are unique to transgender personnel.
Which means that by using this metric, Mattis could essentially slow roll or ignore part of Trump’s order, leaving some trans troops in place and placating his colleagues in the Pentagon.
Military leaders resisted the ban
Trump’s July 26 tweets announcing that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the US military surprised defense officials — Mattis himself was on vacation at the time.
It also angered many of them because they believe anyone who wanted to serve should feel welcome to do so. “It goes against everything uniformed leadership believe about how you support an American who is willing to serve the country,” Eric Fanning, the Army secretary from 2016 to 2017, told me.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff, pushed back against Trump, telling his military chiefs to continue their current policy until the White House sent official guidance over to the Defense Department. “We will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” Dunford wrote on July 27. “As importantly, given the current fight and the challenges we face, we will all remain focused on accomplishing our assigned missions.”
Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s top military official, made a personal commitment to his trans service members in response to the ban. “I will not turn my back. We have made an investment in you, and you have made an investment in the Coast Guard, and I will not break faith,” Zukunft told Lt. Taylor Miller, the Coast Guard’s first openly transitioning officer, on August 1.
Nine days later, Trump’s Navy secretary offered his thoughts. “On a fundamental basis, any patriot that wants to serve and meets all the requirements should be able to serve in our military,” Richard Spencer said on August 10.
A group of 56 retired generals and admirals even wrote a letter to Trump on August 1 calling on the president to reverse his decision. Among the signatories were retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who commanded troops in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. The letter also featured comments from retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs chairman for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who supports keeping transgender troops in the military.
“Thousands of transgender Americans are currently serving in uniform and there is no reason to single out these brave men and women and deny them the medical care that they require,” Mullen’s quote in the letter reads.
Since Trump issued the formal guidance, no officials have suggested they won’t dutifully carry out the orders of their commander in chief and implement the new policy. But even this level of pushback is unprecedented.
Mattis is charged with executing the president’s wishes to ban transgender people from the military. But at the same time, he also wants to field the most capable fighting force. Focusing on deployability could offer him a way to do both.
It’s hard to argue most transgender people aren’t deployable
There are many reasons why a service member might not be able to deploy — a Marine gets diagnosed with cancer; a soldier gets pregnant; an airman breaks a leg in training; or a sailor is in the middle of a move to a new residence. Even an outdated dental exam could make someone nondeployable because they didn’t get the checkup.
One of the arguments against trans service members is that their unique medical needs disqualify them from deploying and weaken the military’s ability to fight wars. If someone is in the middle of a sex reassignment surgery, for example, then that person is deemed nondeployable during the recovery after the procedure. But any service member who underwent invasive surgery would be nondeployable until fully recuperated, too.
A 2016 Pentagon-commissioned study by the RAND Corporation estimated that only around 29 to 129 active service members will seek transition-related medical care each year. That’s a very small number, considering the study says that there are between 1,320 to 6,630 active trans troops and around 1.3 million active-duty service members.
But Amy Schafer, a military personnel expert at the Center for a New American Security, told me that deployability is a big issue for the military as a whole and not solely a concern about transgender troops.
It’s an especially big deal in the Army, the military’s largest service. “There are thousands of soldiers who aren non deployable at any given time, mostly for medical reasons,” Fanning told me. In July 2016, around 148,000 soldiers were considered nondeployable. “About 90 percent of the time, soldiers are non-deployable for medical reasons ranging from serious injuries to an outdated dental exam,” Defense News reported.
As of now, there is no public evidence to support trans service members can’t meet set standards or deploy solely because they are trans. In fact, transgender troops are deploying right now. Sue Fulton, formerly the president of the pro-LGBTQ+ military organization Sparta, told me that transgender troops deploy about two times during their service on average — including to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Center for a New American Security’s Schafer agrees. “It’s disingenuous to link deployability to transgender personnel,” she said. “It’s being used a false flag to disqualify Americans who are ready, willing, and able to serve.”
Which means that if Mattis wants to limit or slow down the pace of transgender removals from the armed forces, deployability may be the way to do that. On Tuesday, Mattis announced his plan to convene of a panel of experts to look into how to implement the ban. The president gave him the authority to study the best way forward, contrary to reports claiming he froze the ban.
But Mattis is no social warrior. He was skeptical of women openly serving in combat roles, worrying that men and women will be attracted to one another in the field. He also worried that women couldn’t perform “intimate killing” in close combat and didn’t know if commanders would send women into that kind of situation. But during his confirmation hearing in January, he seemed to support LGBTQ+ troops. “Frankly, I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with," he said.
Yet more than anything Mattis cares deeply about the military’s ability to fight wars. If he starts removing able-bodied troops, it makes that fight harder. So while Trump’s trans ban is still likely to go forward, it could oddly be Mattis — and a wonky military metric — that might minimize its effects.
Mattis has until February 21, 2018, to come up with a plan, in consultation with the secretary of homeland security, and he has to implement it by March 23, 2018.