Defense Secretary Jim Mattis declined to answer questions Monday on the Pentagon’s new transgender policy, citing ongoing litigation that could make all of the department’s changes moot anyway.
“Right now, because these are matters under litigation, I’m not going to discuss them further,” Mattis said.
Late Friday night the White House released a memo from President Donald Trump amending his original July tweets and an August 2017 White House memo on the issue, which had directed a ban on all transgender service in the military.
Trump announced Friday night that instead, his administration’s policy would align with Mattis’ recommendations. Those recommendations allow some transgender personnel to stay, while forcing others out, and threatened to expel transgender service members currently grandfathered in, if the exemptions are used to further challenge the new policy in the courts.
In that memo Mattis also recommended that personnel diagnosed with gender dysphoria not be allowed to serve in the military, unless they were among those personnel grandfathered in because they are already serving.
Mattis defined gender dysphoria as a condition where the person is uncomfortable in their biological sex to the point of experiencing distress or impaired functioning.
But that’s a problem, said Palm Center director Aaron Belkin, because the diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” is used far beyond those service members who are in distress. The center studies lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the military.
“Many people get gender dysphoria wrong,” Belkin said, “One of the most important people that got it wrong is Secretary Mattis in that report.”
Belkin said the clinical term is used for any transgender person seeking to transition to their preferred sex, and most of those people are not in distress.
“They have to have the diagnosis” of gender dysphoria to get any treatment, Belkin said.
Mattis also recommended that personnel who have undergone gender reassignment surgery not be allowed to serve; and that transgender personnel who are able to serve in their biological sex be allowed to remain.
Belkin said Mattis’ new memo would be akin to the 1990’s policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and force future service members into silence, which could still be risky.
“Let’s say you are willing to serve as a happy, silent, transgender person who doesn’t say a thing about who you really are,” Belkin said. The new policy “is still a danger for you,” Belkin said, because if that service member is somehow discovered to be transgender, and then seeks any medical or stress assistance, a doctor could tie it to gender dysphoria and make the service member ineligible.
The new policy raised numerous questions, and is likely to be challenged in ongoing litigation that has already struck down other aspects of Trump’s transgender ban, said Shannon Minter, with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is representing transgender clients in two of the four federal cases challenging the ban.
“We’ve already been seeking the information on what this so-called study consisted of,” Minter said, referring to the study Mattis directed last June on whether transgender service would impact readiness. The 44-page study released with the new policy referred to other outside organization studies and internal deliberations, but does not cite its own gathered evidence.
“This is a cobbled-together, after-the-fact spurious so-called study,” Minter said.
On Monday the Pentagon cancelled its regular media briefing and declined to make subject matter experts available to discuss the new transgender policy.
Mattis was questioned about the new policy at a media event welcoming Indonesia’s minister of foreign affairs to the Pentagon.
“I think the statements stand on their own right now, and I don’t need to waste our guest’s time reiterating what’s already down,” Mattis said in response to follow-up questions seeking details about how service members will be affected.
The Pentagon said in an accompanying study that 8,980 service members who identify as transgender were currently serving, and that 937 of those were diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."