The Pentagon said it will let openly transgender people enlist in the military starting on January 1, according to the Associated Press.
This is not because, as some people responding to the news on social media assumed, the Pentagon is unilaterally defying President Donald Trump’s order to ban trans people from the military. It’s because Trump’s order has been blocked, albeit through preliminary injunctions so far, in court battles.
US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has ruled against the ban and last month told the military that it must allow trans people to enlist starting in January. Then, on Monday, Kollar-Kotelly rejected the federal government’s request to delay her order.
The order follows yet another federal ruling that declared that the military must also pay for trans-inclusive medical services, including gender-affirming surgeries.
Former President Barack Obama had moved to undo the military’s ban on openly trans soldiers, with the policy change set to take effect over the summer. But in July, Trump tweeted that he would reinstate the ban on trans military service. He argued, “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.”
Then, in August, the White House released the actual policy behind those tweets. According to the administration, Trump would effectively return the military to the pre-2016 era in which trans troops could not serve openly. The policy also banned the military from paying for gender-affirming surgery, with some exceptions to “protect the health” of someone who had already begun transitioning.
But the guidance also allowed the secretary of defense, after consulting with the secretary of homeland security, some wiggle room to decide what to do with already serving trans service members. It also let them advise the president on reversing the ban. For now, an interim guidance by the secretary of defense allows the Pentagon to pay for trans service members’ procedures through a waiver — a process that recently let at least one trans service member go through a gender-affirming surgery.
The research, based on the experiences of other countries, shows that the costs associated with trans service members are actually very small. A 2016 review of the evidence by the RAND Corporation found that by allowing trans-inclusive medical care, “active-component health care costs would increase by between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually, representing a 0.04 to 0.13 percent increase in active-component health care expenditures” — a very small amount.
This small cost may not mean much in budget terms, but it could mean a lot to trans soldiers: As the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association point out, transitioning helps reduce gender dysphoria — a state of emotional distress caused by how someone’s body or the gender they were assigned at birth conflicts with their gender identity. Untreated gender dysphoria, which not all trans people suffer from in the same way, can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide, so treating it could mean fewer mental health issues for trans people serving in the military.
Trump’s ban, with its prohibition on trans-inclusive medical services, was supposed to take effect in March. But as the ban is now held up in courts, it looks increasingly likely that it might not take effect at all — leaving openly trans people just weeks away from being able to enlist in the military.
For more on Trump’s ban on trans troops, read Vox’s explainer.