When President Obama lifted the ban on transgender military service in 2016, Staff Sergeant Patricia King could not have anticipated a day like Jan. 22, 2019.
“I never expected that it would have been undone,” she told The Daily Beast, hours after the Supreme Court gave a green light to the Trump administration to implement its transgender troop ban while several legal challenges continue in federal courts.
SSG King enlisted in the army in 1999, deployed to Afghanistan three times, and came out as a transgender woman in 2016. Because she has already transitioned, she would not be forced out of the military—at least as the legal situation currently stands—but she is retiring in August anyway, after two decades of service.
“This is certainly not the way I wanted to finish my career, with this sort of thing hanging overhead,” said King.
King woke up to the news on Tuesday: Although the Supreme Court did not agree to hear a transgender troop ban case this term, it did decide in a 5-4 ruling to lift two of the three injunctions on the ban while the various lawsuits continue to play out.
As the American Civil Liberties Union noted, the injunction they secured remains in place, so the ban is still blocked from going into effect until that injunction is lifted. The Department of Defense confirmed in an email to The Daily Beast that the ACLU’s injunction will prevent any changes from happening immediately.
In a statement, a Department of Defense spokesperson said that the transgender troop ban “is NOT a ban on service by transgender persons”—a claim that LGBT advocates say is deeply misleading, given that the latest iteration of the ban would still bar transgender service members from seeking transition-related medical treatment, effectively forcing those in the closet to pick between health care and discharge.
That position, advanced by Defense Secretary James Mattis last year, is a subtle evolution of the original policy that Trump tweeted out in July 2017–namely, a categorical ban on transgender military service.
“Our understanding is that provisions within this policy allow those who have already transitioned—or are already in the middle of transition and serving—to continue to serve,” King told The Daily Beast. “However, as time goes on, we don’t know what implications this may have for any of us.”
The deep uncertainty surrounding the future of transgender military service doesn’t just impact those who are already serving, like King; it also deters transgender civilians from enlisting or seeking a commission with the military.
Ryan Karnoski, a 24-year-old social worker and one of the plaintiffs in the joint Lambda Legal-OutServe-SLDN lawsuit against the transgender troop ban, told The Daily Beast that, as a transgender man, his dream of doing social work within the military has essentially been put on hold.
“At this point, I’m kind of just watching closely and waiting for the [lower] courts to make their decision,” he said.
One injunction preventing the ban from going into effect is not nearly enough of a guarantee for Karnoski to gamble everything on a commission.
“I’m married, and my wife and I have pets, and we’re homeowners. Choosing to apply for a direct commission into the military is a huge undertaking that would uproot my family,” he told The Daily Beast. “It would need to be based off of knowing that, as a transgender person, I would be able to serve in the military without having to worry about whether or not there is going to be a ban on transgender service.”
In statements, LGBT advocacy groups pledged to keep fighting the troop ban.
National Center for Lesbian Rights legal director Shannon Minter said his organization is “confident the courts will ultimately protect the integrity of our nation’s military.” Jennifer Levi, with GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, agreed that it “cannot survive legal review.” Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn promised to “redouble our efforts.”
Before today, only one federal court issued a ruling on the issue that was favorable to the Trump administration. Earlier this month, as The Daily Beast previously reported, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit appeals court ruled against a previous injunction on the ban—an action that didn’t impact the other injunctions on the ban.
In its statement to The Daily Beast, the Department of Defense maintained that they ought to “be permitted to implement personnel policies that it determines are necessary to ensure the most lethal and combat effective fighting force in the world.”
The Palm Center, a research institute that has studied this issue—and has also collected statements from the Chiefs of Staff seeming to contradict the DoD’s implication that transgender military service would undermine effectiveness—continues to dispute that claim. Rather, they say, implementing the ban would harm the military.
“The Defense Department should not reinstate the transgender ban because it would undermine readiness, cause significant disruptions and uncertainty, deprive the military of much-needed talent, and wreak havoc with the lives and careers of the 14,700 transgender troops bravely protecting our nation’s security,” Palm Center director Aaron Belkin said in a statement.
By this point—about a year and a half after Trump first tweeted on the issue, catching many Pentagon officials by surprise—King is familiar with those feelings of anxiety.
“This process of being allowed to serve, and then having that service questioned and living in limbo, has cast an unnecessary and really overly large spotlight on a part of our lives that shouldn’t have nearly that much relevance,” she told The Daily Beast.
King added that the troop ban “has caught a lot of people off guard”—and that, for “most of us in the military—leaders or subordinates—all we really want to do is our job.”
If the Trump administration gets its way, this would be the result: People in King’s position will eventually leave; people in Karnoski’s position will be discouraged from joining; and eventually the military would no longer have openly transgender service members. But both King and Karnoski remain undeterred.
“It’s kind of a calling—and once you’ve heard that calling, it isn’t really something that you would ignore,” Karnoski told The Daily Beast.
“I’m a service member,” said King. I love serving my country. And service members are not victims. We are fighters—and we will continue to fight for what’s right.”