By Christianna Silva
On Wednesday, February 27, five transgender service members made history on Capitol Hill, testifying before the House of Representatives about why the president’s proposed ban on transgender service members is unjust.
Democratic Representative Jackie Speier of California invited the service members to openly speak about their experiences in the military for the first time in U.S. history in front of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. Since the congressional testimony of Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer,” Michael Cohen, was dominating the attention on the Hill, the service members waited in front of an empty committee for over 30 minutes before receiving their chance to be heard, Broadly reporter Diana Tourjée tweeted.
Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik, one of the service members who testified, just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan, where she replaced a pregnant soldier in her unit. She transitioned after the Obama administration lifted a ban on serving while transgender in 2016. At the time, Stehlik was already a physical therapist in the service, after being commissioned as an infantry officer from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She was a graduate from Ranger School and said she lived a “soldier’s life.” By all accounts, she was a celebrated service member.
Transitioning didn’t change any of that, she told the committee.
"What is the value of having transgender people in the military? Based on my experience first as a combat arms officer and medical provider, the answer is unequivocally that my transition — and so many others — has dramatically increased the readiness and lethality of every branch of the armed forces,” Stehlik said, adding that transitioning made her a more "effective soldier.”
Stehlik sat alongside Navy Lieutenant Commander Blake Dremann, a supply officer who is also the board chair of transgender service member group Sparta Pride; Army captain Jennifer Peace, an intelligence officer; Staff Sergeant Patricia King, an infantry soldier; and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Akira Wyatt, a hospital corpsman assigned to treat Marine infantrymen.
All five of the transgender service members are still allowed to serve because they came out as transgender and received medical treatment during the Obama administration, which makes them part of a small cohort of service members who are exempt from President Trump’s proposed ban, according to the ACLU. However, Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the LGBT & HIV Project at the ACLU, told MTV News that there are still countless lost opportunities trans and other gender non-conforming folks face as a result of the Trump administration’s proposal, which was first introduced with a tweet from the President on July 26, 2017 on the unsubstantiated claims that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender [sic] in the military would entail.” If the ban goes into effect, the directive will ban all new transgender recruits from enlisting and prohibit transition-related surgery for active service members.
Currently, there are multiple lawsuits fighting against the ban, but there is only one injunction stopping the ban from fully going into effect until those lawsuits are finalized: Stone v. Trump. That injunction stops the Trump administration from barring transgender people from enlisting or discharging transgender people because of their gender identity.
“The final outcome of the litigation is still yet to be determined,” Strangio explained. “The question is … does the ban go into effect during the litigation, which can take years in the federal courts, or is it blocked during the pendency of those cases? Right now it is still blocked because there is one injunction in place. It may not be blocked for long, but for now it is.”
Even if the ban is allowed to go into effect while the other litigation makes its way through the courts, the transgender service members who are exempt from the ban may still be skipped over for promotion and deployment opportunities because of their gender identity, according to Strangio.
“Even with the exception for them, there are so many lost opportunities that people are never going to know about because they're operating under a policy that essentially tells them that they're unfit to serve,” Strangio added.
Supporters of President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender service members claim that the healthcare costs of covering a transition are too high. Lori Trahan, a Democratic Representative from Massachusetts, pointed out that the Department of Defense spent about $8 million on trans-related medical costs since 2016 — less than one percent of the Pentagon’s annual healthcare spending.
The Trump administration also points to how much time the service members are unable to serve due to medical recovery to support the proposed ban. However, all five of the service members dismissed the claims that transition care was too time-consuming and expensive. None of them took any significant time off, and many had used their personal holiday time to have the surgeries. Peace pointed out that a single pregnancy can lead to 16 months of non-deployability, in comparison to a few weeks of recovery from transition-related surgeries. King said she and her commander decided the best time to undergo vocal feminization surgery was during her personal leave around Christmas.
“By doing this, I shortened the time that I was going to be down because I couldn’t speak over Christmas leave,” King said. “I just used a whiteboard to talk to my kids, and then at the end of January I was ready to go to the field with my unit.”
Dremann said that he had taken off just seven weeks over a three-year year period. “My transition had zero impact on any deployments or readiness issues. I was always available for training,” he explained.
After the five service members testified, James N. Stewart, a retired Air Force general who performs the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel readiness, testified that the policy isn’t a ban. He said that any person can join the military as long as they do not seek any medical treatment connected to their gender identity and are not diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition in which people experience distress because of the sex they were assigned at birth.
“The realities associated with the condition called gender dysphoria and the accommodations required for that gender transition in the military are far more complicated than we may assume,” Stewart said.
However, the ACLU argues that saying a transgender person can serve so long as they do not show any signs of being transgender is, in effect, a ban on transgender service.
“It is insidious and dangerous to suggest it's not one because a trans person could serve in their assigned sex at birth,” Strangio told MTVNews. “That is like telling a gay person that a ban on same-sex marriage isn't a ban on them getting married because they can marry someone of the opposite sex.”
For her part, Stehlik says, she let the proposed ban’s animosity stop her from fulfilling the oaths she made as a service member: “I belong in a combat arms unit, taking care of my soldiers.”
To learn more about issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, head to lgbt.mtv.com.