April 26, 2018 at 4:37 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Gillibrand, Mattis clash in committee over transgender military service

Defense Secretary James Mattis clashed with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) over transgender military service. (Mattis photo public domain; Gillibrand photo by personaldemocracy via Flickr)

In the wake of all four military service chiefs reporting no problems with unit cohesion with transgender people in the U.S. military, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) clashed with Defense Secretary James Mattis on his report against their service — which formed the basis of President Trump’s transgender military ban.

The exchange took place Thursday in hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee over the budget request proposed by the Defense Department for fiscal year 2019.

“I’m very concerned about this report because it says that there is quote, ‘scientific uncertainty surrounding the efficacy of transition-related treatments for gender dysphoria,’ yet the American Medical, Psychological and Psychiatric Associations have all said the report misrepresents what is the scientific consensus when it comes to gender dysphoria and transition,” Gillibrand said.


Initiating the exchange, Gillibrand told Mattis she was surprised the report that formed his recommendations to Trump — which purportedly was based on the conclusions of a panel of experts — claimed to have taken into account the military’s experience of allowing transgender people to serve. That was a policy change enacted in the Obama administration and has been in effect for nearly two years.

That’s why, Gillibrand said, she asked each of the service chiefs during congressional testimony whether transgender service has resulted in unit cohesion problems since that time. As the Blade previously reported, all four — Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller and Air Force Chief of Staff Adm. David Goldfein — told her they heard of no problems.

Gillibrand held up a paper copy of a new report from the San Francisco-based Palm Center and said she she’d give the document to Mattis “so you can read in full.”

The report, made public Thursday, found out of 949 service members with gender dysphoria since the policy was changed in the Obama years until mid-2017, 40 percent were deployed in military operations overseas and only one had an issue during that deployment.

“It appears that this report your department has issued is not based on the department’s data or science, but rather quote, ‘potential risks,’ that the authors cannot back up,” Gillibrand said.

But Gillibrand went a step further, comparing the Mattis report to the same assertions offered in decades past to exclude others from the armed forces.

“This seems to me to be the same uninformed and unfounded concerns that to the opposition of repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ integrating women into the military, integrating African-Americans into the military — and I think you need to do a lot more work on this topic to inform yourself,” Gillibrand said.

The defense secretary, however, seemed prepared to respond to Gillibrand, telling her, “I regret the way your characterize it.”

Recalling his testimony during his confirmation hearing in which he said he wouldn’t seek to ban LGBT service members, Mattis said, “I would remind you that when I came into this job, I said I don’t come in with a preordained agenda to change something.”

“I believe that service in the military is a touchstone for patriotic Americans,” Mattis added. “The military protects all Americans’ freedom and liberty to live as they choose — and we’re proud of that.”

Mattis said 71 percent of 18- to 24-year-old men and women in the United States do not qualify to enlist as a private in the U.S. Army for medical, legal, behavioral or intellectual reasons.

Upon coming into the position of defense secretary last year, Mattis said he heard claims Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s research leading to transgender military service was more limited than what the service chiefs wanted.

“They were asking me questions because we were coming to the induction of transgender,” Mattis said. “They wanted to know how we’re going to deal with certain issue about basic training about deployability. I said, ‘Didn’t you get all this when the policy came out?’ The Carter policy we call it. They said, ‘No.” And I said, ‘Did you have input?’ They said, no, they did not.”

Prior to his recommendation, Mattis said he convened a panel of experts was comprised of combat veterans, the vice chiefs of the services and the under secretaries. Mattis said the panel consulted transgender troops, the commanders of transgender troops as well as civilian and military medical experts who have provided transition-related care.

When Mattis said he’d like his 44-page recommendation entered for the record, Gillibrand interrupted and said she’d wants a list of all experts she consulted. Mattis said he’d see what he could do, but noted the issue is under litigation.

On Gillibrand’s questions to service chiefs on whether transgender service would cause any problems with unit cohesion, Mattis those reports wouldn’t come up to the level of the service chiefs and it’s “impossible” for them to have that information.

“The reason is, under the Carter policy, the reporting is opaque,” Mattis said. “We cannot report that a problem emanated from a transgender. We cannot under the Carter policy do that. So the question you’ve asked the service chiefs and the chairman are ones that right now the Carter policy prohibited that very information from coming up because it’s private information.”

On medical issues related to transgender service, Mattis made a point of drawing a connection between transgender status to anxiety and depression.

“If gender dysphoria has anxiety or it has some kind of depression, we don’t allow anyone in with that,” Mattis said. “I would have to make a special category that said you can have these disqualifying factors only if you’re transgender and then we can bring you in. I think you can understand why we have chosen not to do that.”

Gillibrand clashed with Mattis after she asked questions of Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford similar to those she each of the military service chiefs on whether transgender military service.

Asked by Gillibrand if having transgender people in the military caused any problems with unit cohesion or morale, Dunford denied that was the case, but added a caveat.

“I wouldn’t typically hear of individual cases of cohesion or discipline issues, and maybe just a comment on transgender,” Dunford said. “For me, the issue with transgender has never been about cohesion or discipline anyway. It was just about any individual regardless of circumstances being able to meet the physical and medical qualifications of being worldwide deployable, so if an individual is serving without accommodation, then I don’t I’d expect to see discipline or cohesion issues in that unit.”

Asked whether he thinks the rollout of Mattis recommendations against transgender service treats those troops with dignity and respect, Dunford insisted transgender people currently in the U.S. armed forces will undergo no change.

“One thing we’ve tried to clarify for men and women who are currently serving is that — and I can’t talk about any changes in the policy — but one thing that didn’t change was the status of the men and women that are currently serving,” Dunford said.

But Gillibrand wasn’t satisfied with that response and replied, “That’s not what the impression the report leaves.” Asked whether he had met with transgender troops since the report and if they had anxiety, Dunford said he hadn’t since that time.

“I recommend that you do so, so you are more informed,” Gillibrand responded.

The exchange took place on the same day a total of six former U.S. surgeons general issued a joint statement asserting they were “troubled” by the Mattis report because they find no medical issues with transgender service.

“In fact, there is a global medical consensus that such care is reliable, safe, and effective,” the statement says. “An expectation of certainty is an unrealistic and counterproductive standard of evidence for health policy — whether civilian or military — because even the most well-established medical treatments could not satisfy that standard. Indeed, setting certainty as a standard suggests an inability to refute the research.”

The former surgeons general who signed the statement are Joycelyn Elders, David Satcher, Richard Carmona, Regina Benjamin, Vivek Murthy and Kenneth Moritsugu.

Also on Tuesday, Gillibrand led a bipartisan group of 49 U.S. senators in a letter to Mattis expressing opposition to the Trump administration’s ban on transgender military service and Mattis’ report. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined Democrats in signing the letter.

“The recommendations and report break faith with the men and women serving in our military by establishing a new ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for transgender service members, permitting them to serve only if they are willing to forego any chance of living as their true selves,” the senators write. 

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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