Trump’s Transgender Troop Ban Marks the Dark Return of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
There’s only one guaranteed way for transgender people to remain in the military after April 12: Pretend you aren’t transgender.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is coming back.
That’s the only way to convey the urgency of what’s going to happen on April 12, when the Trump administration’s transgender troop ban goes into effect.
The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to claim that the transgender troop ban is not a ban. The written policy itself is byzantine, laden with enough jargon to give the Defense Department plausible deniability on that point. But it is definitely a ban. Once you understand how it works, there is no other conclusion you can make.
So forget the jargon and the legal battles and picture this:
You are in the military and you have a health condition recognized as valid by virtually every major medical association. It doesn’t affect your ability to serve in the long term and there’s a proven treatment that costs the military next to nothing. But if you get diagnosed with that health condition, you lose your job.
If we were talking about knee conditions, this policy would be patently ridiculous. Plenty of service members receive some form of knee surgery and go back to active duty [PDF].
But because the condition is gender dysphoria, nearly a third of Americans—and more importantly, the current presidential administration—believe that you are unfit to serve. And that small but powerful group of people is going to sideline your career at all costs.
After April 12, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria will almost certainly mean discharge for those who are already in the military—and it will keep out potential recruits.
By making gender dysphoria a disqualifying condition, the Trump administration can ban transgender troops without admitting that they are banning transgender troops; rather, they can argue that they are simply pushing out people with gender dysphoria.
That’s disingenuous because the Venn diagram of transgender people and people who experience gender dysphoria, while not a perfect circle, is pretty damn close to one.
After the Trump administration’s new policy goes into effect on April 12, it will be virtually impossible for a transgender service member to join or remain in the armed forces without severely compromising their identity.
(In fact, the only transgender people who will be allowed to serve openly are those who have already received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria by April 12.)
A memo on the impact of the policy provided to The Daily Beast by The Palm Center, a think tank that studies LGBT issues in the military, makes it clear that there’s only one guaranteed way for transgender people to remain in the military after April 12: Pretend you aren’t transgender.
If that sounds familiar, it should. That’s exactly what gay, lesbian, and bisexualsoldiers had to do under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which the Palm Center calls a “perfect parallel” for the transgender troop ban.
“It is ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ all over again,” the Palm Center notes.
In fact, there are a dizzying number of ways in which the Trump administration’s new policy encourages transgender people to remain in the closet.
If you’re transgender and you’re hoping to join the military after April 12, you are out of luck. If you’ve had any sort of hormonal or surgical treatment for gender dysphoria, the Palm Center memo notes, the door will be completely closed.
If you have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria but haven’t yet received any medical care for it, you can only serve if you”have lived in [your] birth gender for three years immediately prior,” according to the Palm Center breakdown. In other words, the military will allow you to join—but only if you suppress your transgender identity for years at a time, potentially incurring serious psychological damage in the process.
But let’s say you are already in the military when the policy goes into effect and have yet to come out. If you need to keep your job to support yourself or your family—or simply because it’s the career path you’ve chosen and you don’t want to give the president the satisfaction of tweeting you into a different one—you will be incentivized to stay in the closet at all costs.
Maybe you’re suffering from depression as a result of untreated gender dysphoria. Do you see a mental health care provider and risk letting slip the root cause of your distress—or do you avoid medical treatment altogether?
The Palm Center believes many will choose the latter option: “A transgender service member’s only reasonable approach to career preservation would be to avoid medical or mental-health contacts that could lead to a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.”
If you do end up getting diagnosed with gender dysphoria, whether intentionally or unintentionally, you will be “subject to administrative separation,” as the Palm Center notes, with only one extremely unlikely path that ends in you keeping your job: a doctor has to say that you don’t need transition-related medical care and you have to be “willing and able to serve in [your] birth gender.”
But as Palm Center Director Aaron Belkin pointed out to The Daily Beast, the military gets to decide who is “willing and able, not the service member, so “once that information is out of the bag, the service member has no control over where that leads.”
In effect, you have to be willing to perform a sort of makeshift conversion therapy on yourself, convincing yourself that you don’t need to transition, in order to even have a chance of staying inside. Even then, the decision is out of your hands.
But the cruelty doesn’t stop there. If you can’t pretend to be your birth gender, you will not be discharged right away but will instead—in the words of the policy itself—be “formally counseled on [your] failure to adhere to such standards” and be “given an opportunity to correct those deficiencies.”
In effect, the Palm Center notes, this warning system essentially blames transgender service members for not being able to go without medically-necessary health care. It also encourages transgender people to try to suppress their gender identity even longer.
Imagine, though, that you have been living with gender dysphoria for so long that you can no longer delay transition—but the military, in addition to being your employer, is also your health care provider.
The only way to get any transgender health care while still in the military would be to sacrifice your job—and even then, you would get kicked out in such short order that you wouldn’t make more than a dent in your transition.
As the Palm Center notes, the policy may allow transgender service members to receive treatment while they’re waiting to be separated depending on how it gets interpreted—but because “administrative separations are designed to be processed quickly,” any transition-related medical care you get on your way out “is likely to be short term.”
Adding insult to injury is the fact that transgender service members who are forced into hiding will also be serving alongside the “very small number” of transgender people, according to the Palm Center, who are allowed to be out because they received a diagnosis in time and were grandfathered in.
In fact, the Palm Center believes that the policy will even allow “grandfathered enlisted persons to commission in the future,” which means they could become officers.
Picture, then, being told that gender dysphoria makes you unfit to serve, while your handful of openly transgender colleagues get to further their careers, all because they met an arbitrary deadline that you couldn’t reach. (That would be roughly equivalent to the Department of Defense announcing during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era that gay men born before 1980 could be out, loud, and proud but gay men born after 1980 couldn’t tell anyone or else they will get kicked out.)
This will be the reality for transgender troops come April 12, and much like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it will be a psychological minefield for anyone who tries to navigate it.
But ultimately, history is going to repeat itself: After April 12, we will begin seeing discharges from the military, perhaps slowly at first. We will learn— based on the level of public outrage over those tragic stories—the success of the Trump administration’s tactic of hiding the ban beneath layers of bureaucracy.
We will see whether or not the rollback of LGBT rights in the military manages to break through an intense news cycle, because so far the imminent implementation of the ban hasn’t seemed to garner as much media attention as it should have.
Then one day, whether through the pressure of public opinion or a change in presidential administration, transgender people will serve openly again, just as cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual troops are serving now.
But in the meantime, transgender troops will be forced to live under the equivalent to an unethical policy that the country scrapped eight years ago.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will be back; the only difference is the target.