In a sudden announcement, President Trump stated on Twitter last Wednesday morning that transgendered individuals would no longer be allowed to serve “in any capacity” in the United States military.
In the hours and days that have followed, protests broke out in many major cities across the country, including New York City, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. On Saturday, more than 100 people gathered on Smith Hill near the Rhode Island State House front steps to do the same.
“It's sad because we're in America, where we're supposed to have certain freedoms, and Trump is trying to take away freedoms,” said Kelsey Gamble, a Warwick resident attending the protest.
Speakers from the Rhode Island trans community shouted over whipping gusts of wind to express their refusal to accept what many see as a blatant act of discrimination and to raise awareness about trans health issues.
“We all deserve to have access to healthcare that allows us to live authentically,” said Jayseon Watts, LCSW and Program Manager for the Trans* Health Access Program at Thundermist Health Center.
Nika Lomazzo, protest co-organizer, called the decision by Trump an obvious act of “scapegoating” and urged the protest attendees to remain aware that fighting to be a part of the United States military is a multi-layered and complex issue and that by fighting for equal rights within the military does not mean they accept or agree with all the actions of the military.
“We have to have the uncomfortable conversation that we cannot fully support the military industrial complex,” Lomazzo said. “We need to be mindful of what the military does while also respecting trans people and cis [those who identify with their birth sex] people who feel the need to join the military, both as an act to serve our country and as an act of desperation for access to healthcare, job and full lives.”
Carly Crystal served in the Army for six years before she was given a general discharge after coming out as trans in 2010, shortly before the repealing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by then-President Barack Obama. Following her discharge, Crystal spent four years as a homeless veteran.
“Yes, [repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] helped the gay and lesbian communities, but it left the trans community vulnerable,” Crystal said. “We can't allow another trans veteran to go through years of unneeded assault, abuse and danger. Sanity, liberty and equality for all.”
The president’s Tweet also sparked a flurry of articles to emerge combating the supposed reasoning behind the ban – that healthcare costs for transgendered individuals were “tremendous” and that their continued presence would cause “disruption” within the ranks.
A widely-referenced study from the Rand Corp., sanctioned by the United States Department of Defense, concluded that healthcare-related costs for transgendered soldiers costs between $2.4 and $8.4 million, or 0.13 percent of the military’s $6.2 billion healthcare budget.
A Washington Post article reported that the military spends $84 million a year just on erectile dysfunction medication. And while critics of this report may argue that erectile dysfunction medication can be used for other afflictions, such as high blood pressure, the Post article specifies that over $40 million of that number is spent on Viagra, the primary use of which is indeed for erectile dysfunction.
Also, for comparison, the high-end estimate for the total cost of healthcare for all transgendered soldiers (which is estimated between 1,500 and 15,000 including members serving in a reserve capacity) is about the same cost paid by taxpayers for just four of Trump’s vacations to his Mar a Lago resort, which the Washington Post estimated cost at least $2 million, per trip, in security and transportation requirements.
“The July 26 statement relies on arguments that the Pentagon’s leadership, and many others, have rejected,” reads a letter signed by the Attorneys General of Hawaii, California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
“Moreover, a Defense Department study concluded that transgender service members do not harm unit cohesion and that allowing transgender troops to fulfill their duty has no effect on military readiness or military budgets,” the letter continues. “Transgender service members fill a number of critical military roles. Retaining these talented service members strengthens, not weakens, our military readiness.”
Other high-profile Rhode Island politicians came out in staunch opposition of Trump’s Tweet.
“To wear the uniform is a noble endeavor and a true expression of love for one’s country,” said Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI). “The president has casually cast aside the sacrifices transgender individuals have made and will continue to make, displaying an utter lack of respect for our armed forces and materially harming our national security in the process.”
“In our office, any veteran who walks through our doors gets the help they’ve earned,” said Kasim Yarn, Director of the Rhode Island Office of Veterans’ Affairs. “Likewise, we firmly believe that those who want to serve should be given the opportunity to do so, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or gender identification...Discrimination has no place in today’s military – in fact, it presents a barrier to overall force readiness. We are safer and stronger when we allow those qualified to serve to do so.”
In the wake of the Tweet, which did not indicate whether or not a new ban was actually enacted yet, or when or how it would be enacted, General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the Tweet did not represent an official act of policy, and that no changes have officially been made to the military’s policy on transgendered individuals serving now or in the future.
“There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president's direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,” Dunford said in a statement.
For the people who gathered at the State House on Saturday, there was a general feeling of pride and resiliency in the face of what they considered to be another unfortunate and expected attack on their civil liberties. For some, like Warwick resident Melissa Stevens, it is a sad fact that such a protest is necessary.
“It just feels like we’re going backwards,” she said.