Government & Politics

Trump blocking transgender troops comes after pressure from Missouri’s Vicky Hartzler

President Donald Trump’s decision to restrict transgender troops in the military comes after weeks of pressure from U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri.

Trump announced Wednesday morning on Twitter that after consulting with his generals, he had decided to no longer allow transgender individuals to serve in the military in any capacity, saying that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”

Hartzler, a Republican whose district covers central and western Missouri, has pushed for weeks to reverse an Obama administration policy that enabled transgender troops to undergo sex reassignment surgery and continue to serve.

Trump’s comments echoed Hartzler, who has framed her opposition to transgender troops as stemming from concerns about medical costs. Hartzler said she had not spoken directly with the president but did have discussions with White House officials prior to Trump’s announcement.

“I think we raised the awareness for people all across this country of this failed Obama policy that had been inflicted on our military last year and the dangers to both our readiness as well as our ability to spend our precious defense dollars to meet the threat,” Hartzler said in a phone call Wednesday. “And so I think the ensuing discussions that developed and the ensuing outrage for people all across America ... helped propel this decision today.”

A study by the Rand Corp. last year estimated that 1,320 to 6,630 of the military’s 1.3 million active service members were transgender but that not all of them would seek surgery. The study found that covering hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgeries for transgender troops would result in a 0.13 percent health care cost increase for the military.

Hartzler had offered an amendment to the defense budget in June to completely block transgender troops from serving.

She withdrew the amendment after saying that she wanted to give the Defense Department an opportunity to address the issue internally. In July, she offered a scaled-down version of the amendment that would’ve blocked the military from paying the medical costs for transgender troops’ transitions.

Allison Jaslow, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted that the House rejected Hartzler’s amendment earlier this month.

“It’s kind of a surprise that when the people’s House wasn’t going to accept this kind of intolerance, now our president is,” said Jaslow, a retired Army captain who served two tours in Iraq and attended the University of Central Missouri, which is in Hartzler’s district.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, supported Hartzler’s amendment to prevent the military from paying for transgender troops’ surgeries earlier this month, but he said Wednesday that he opposed the president’s decision to enact a total ban on transgender troops.

“In an era where the United States depends on a voluntary fighting force to protect our freedoms, anyone who wants to serve our country should be able to,” Yoder said. “But I believe taxpayer dollars should not be spent on gender reassignment therapies or surgeries.”

Trump’s decision to institute a complete ban on transgender troops is closer to Hartzler’s original amendment.

“He’s doing what the vast majority of people in America want as well as military leaders,” Hartzler said. “So I’m very pleased that he listened and he acted decisively and will help restore our military’s readiness.”

Since October, transgender troops have been able to receive sex transition medical care through military services. They also could begin to formally change their sex identification in the Pentagon’s personnel system. The Obama administration had set a deadline of July 1, 2017, for the Pentagon to develop guidelines to allow transgender individuals to join the military if they met physical and medical standards.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently delayed a decision on the guidelines by six months to “evaluate more carefully the impact” of allowing transgender recruits on military readiness. It was unclear why the president pushed forward Wednesday, especially as it wasn’t high on the Pentagon’s priority list.

The Pentagon appeared caught off guard by Trump’s announcement, which came while Mattis was on vacation. Facing a barrage of questions, Pentagon spokespeople told reporters to “call the White House.” The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

As of Wednesday morning, the Defense Department website still carried the Obama-era policy, stating: “Effective immediately, transgender service members may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military solely for being transgender individuals.”

Jaslow said Trump’s announcement creates uncertainty for the thousands of transgender troops now serving.

“My heart breaks for any of our transgender troops right now who currently are being allowed to serve openly who now need to fear not just whether they are accepted by their commander in chief but also whether a career that they love needs to come to an end,” said Jaslow, who had to keep her own sexual orientation private while serving because of the now-repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

“I don’t even know if they have an option to go backward,” Jaslow said of transgender troops.

Promo, Missouri’s leading LGBT rights group, compared Trump’s promise to earlier bans on gay troops.

“We have seen throughout history that an inclusive military is what makes an effective force, and that is still true today. We hope leadership across the U.S. military will continue to follow the current policy that allows those who serve to serve openly with honor and integrity,” said Steph Perkins, the group’s executive director.

Hartzler compared the policy to restrictions against service because of medical conditions.

“I’ve had other outstanding young people in my district who were denied serving due to having asthma or flat feet, so it’s important that we be consistent in our policy and make sure that every soldier who is able to enter the service will be able to deploy and serve if called upon,” Hartzler said.

Trump’s announcement was lauded by social conservatives in the Kansas City region. Phillip Cosby, the director of American Family Action of Kansas and Missouri, said he agreed with the president about the need to avoid “social experimentation” in the military.

“Transgenderism is not a science. It’s not good biology. It’s feelings,” Cosby said. “Social experimentation is a detractor to good order and discipline in the military, and in these dangerous times gender confusion will not help their mission.”

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman the congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, noted the president’s previous promises to safeguard LGBT rights and said that “Trump’s anti-transgender pronouncement is ugly and wrong because discrimination is never patriotic; allowing all who love this country to serve is.”

Vera Bergengruen of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

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