WASHINGTON — The Trump administration's move to scale back federal protections for transgender students attending public schools has thousands of military families afraid the president will look next to revoke newly established rights afforded to service members and their children.
Public school administrators were told Wednesday to stop following a policy, implemented during the Obama administration, allowing students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. It's not immediately clear how or even if Trump's directive, issued via the Justice and Education departments, could affect Defense Department schools. A memorandum issued in October guarantees transgender kids access to all facilities on military bases, to include those sponsoring youth programs and activities, but the Pentagon was unable to say on Thursday whether that guidance will stand under the president's new order. A spokesman indicated a response would be forthcoming, however.
There has been no change to the policy, approved in July, allowing transgender military personnel to serve openly and seek related medical care, said Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, the spokesman. Associated rules effect everything from military recruitment to grooming standards and the type of uniforms personnel wear.
Caggins declined to say whether the Defense Department intends to review that policy in the future.
The Pentagon estimates as many as 7,000 transgender troops serve in the active-duty force of 1.3 million. Any shift would deal an enormous setback to those in uniform who until last year had to lead separate lives if they wished to remain in the military, and to transgender children whose parents are subject to reassignment and relocation across the country or around the world, said Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association. The advocacy group has more than 7,000 members, she said, adding that more than an equality issue, the Pentagon's transgender policies directly affect military readiness.
That's an important subject for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who took charge of the Pentagon in January. Like Trump and other leaders, Mattis is said to be intently focused on enhancing the military's ability to be a deadly war-fighting force, sustain its current operations overseas and respond to new or sudden contingencies.
However, the retired Marine Corps general has questioned many of Obama's military personnel moves, telling Military Times last year: "We have to be very careful that we do not undercut battlefield effectiveness with shortsighted social programs." During his Senate confirmation hearing, he mostly dodged lawmakers' questions about military service by LGBT individuals.
"I know this is comparing oranges to apples, but my spouse deployed to Afghanistan before our marriage was legally recognized," said Broadway-Mack, who has two young children with her wife, an Army logistics officer. "I was regarded as the nanny. She was so stressed out worrying, God forbid she were killed in action, whether her family would be taken care of.
"We're trying to be optimistic that the secretary of defense and his staff will do their best to protect all military families," she added. "No parent, when they get deployed, wants to worry about their child being harassed at school."
It's unclear how many military families include transgender children. Some estimates suggest it’s less than 1 percent. The memo issued in October focused specifically on that demographic, saying anyone enrolled in Defense Department schools and other youth programs are permitted to use restrooms and facilities consistent with their gender identity.
That memo also indicated a task force had been established to identify procedures for implementing guidance affecting schools and students. It came after a senior military official, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Todd Weiler intervened when a transgender child had been prevented from using the girls’ bathroom at Ramstein Intermediate School, a Defense Department facility in Germany.
Still, most military children attend public schools outside military installations. Since news of Trump's directive on Wednesday, Broadway-Mack said she's heard from about 10 military families worried what this could mean for their children. The biggest fear is receiving orders to a duty station in one of the states that is less accommodating of or hospitable toward transgender children.
"I live in northern Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., in a more progressive area," she said, relaying the story of a military family who leaves nearby with their 13-year-old transgender child. "She feels safe here. But what if her dad comes down with orders to Fort Hood" in Texas?
The Trump administration’s position is that it will be up to Congress, state legislatures and local governments to adopt appropriate policies or laws addressing the public school issue, according to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ statement Wednesday explaining why the departments of Justice and Education withdrew their guidance. Obama's guidance lacked explanation for how its interpretation was consistent with the law, known as Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in educational programs, activities and facilities operated by institutions that receive federal funding.
The Justice Department "remains committed to the proper interpretation and enforcement of Title IX and to its protections for all students, including LGBTQ students, from discrimination, bullying, and harassment," Sessions wrote.
It's not known how many transgender students are in military families, or in the civilian population. Some estimates indicate the number is less than 1 percent of the civilian population.
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre
Karen Jowers is Military Times' senior writer reporting on military families.