By Aubrey Byron, News Editor
This month’s What’s Current Wednesday held a discussion about transgender soldiers and the military. What’s Current Wednesday is a monthly meeting to discuss current issues hosted by The Current Student Newspaper and The New York Times, with support from the Community Outreach & Engagement at UMSL.
The panel at What’s Current Wednesday assembled to discuss the topic included Chair of the Military and Veteran Studies Program Jim Craig, Army National Guard Veteran and equal rights activist Kathy Serino, and Diversity and LGBTQ+ Program and Project Support Coordinator Harry Hawkins.
On August 25, President Donald Trump signed a directive banning transgender individuals from joining the military. It gave Defense Secretary James Mattis discretion in implementing the law. Originally Trump tweeted the announcement before discussing the matter with defense personnel at The Pentagon. Approximately 2,000-11,000 active troops in the military are estimated to be transgender. On October 30, a federal judge partially blocked the law from going into effect, citing discrimination and unconstitutionality in her ruling.
To begin, Craig discussed some of the potential costs associated with transition surgeries, which in regards to the military budget which he stated were “fairly small.” According to the Congressional Budget Office, the budget increase would go from 0.04 percent to 0.13 percent.
Serino commented on how her gender identity and sexuality did not affect her ability to do her job or her willingness to die for her country. She discussed the betrayal of the order as someone protects the country and equated it to “basically spit in my face.”
The discussion was opened up to the room and students were able to comment. Several veterans attended the discussion and were given a chance to comment. One veteran commented on the arbitrariness of the ruling when to her knowledge, purely elective surgeries were covered under the same budget. Another suggested the money for transition surgeries may be better spent on other veteran care, such as suicide rates. Serino used the opportunity to discuss depression among transgender individuals.
Craig also discussed the effectiveness of a unit if an individual is removed for surgery. They also discussed the story of a soldier who had transitioned prior to their enlistment and whose current gender identity was unknown to their unit and supervisor. The issue of this soldier raised a question of whether the policy had any effect if people are serving unbeknownst to their colleagues.
A student questioned whether it was appropriate to spend federal dollars on transition surgeries, and Jim Craig pointed out that the part of the ruling that was not stated was the decision to not allow budget dollars to be spent on the surgeries. “It’s being played as full stay but it’s not, at least until the hearing,” he said.
Serino pointed out that the surgery is not an automatic fact in being transgender. “A lot of people are talking about the surgery, but a surgery is just one piece of a very long process.” Not all transgender people have a surgery.
“I think everyone should serve that wants to serve,” said one student. He also compared the issue to the ban of blacks in the military in the previous century, implying that the ban is less motivated by budget concerns than by discrimination. At the time, the language of “distraction” was also used to rationalize the ban.
Another student echoed the thought that anyone willing to serve should be able. She also noted that someone transgender in the military does not affect citizens.
The Department of Veterans Affairs controversy of 2016 was also brought up by students. One student stated perhaps they “have enough on their hands.” Jim Craig noted that the VA and Defense were actually different departments, but still stated that it was a valid criticism.
As the discussion was wrapped up, other changes in the military were brought up. Jim Craig noted that the military was moving away from gender-based fiscal readiness tests. Tests would be based on job rather than gender.
For a full video of the discussion, visit The Current Student Newspaper’s Facebook page.