A bipartisan group of 45 senators led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) are calling on Defense Secretary James Mattis to resist President Trump in his plan to bar transgender people from the U.S. armed forces.
“We strongly oppose this policy change, and urge you to advise the president against it,” the letter says. “This announcement contradicts existing Defense Department policies, undermines our military readiness and puts our transgender service members as well as their commanders in an impossible situation.”
In the letter, dated July 28, the senators write “at a minimum” the Pentagon shouldn’t separate any service members based on their gender identity until the transgender service review Mattis announced June 30 is complete; he’s reported back to Congress challenges he foresees in retaining and recruiting transgender troops; and has determined the Pentagon is unable to meet these challenges.
An estimated 15,000 service members in armed forces are transgender. They were able to serve openly as result of former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter lifting the ban on transgender military service last year. (A plan to allow openly transgender people to enlist starting July 1 was put on hold six months by Mattis, who announced he needed to further time review the issue.)
On Wednesday, Trump made a surprise announcement on Twitter transgender people won’t be able serve in the armed forces “in any capacity,” raising questions about the extent of his plan and whether openly transgender people already in the military will be able to keep their jobs.
Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford wrote in a memo Thursday there would be “no modifications” to the policy allowing transgender people to serve until further White House guidance.
“Forcing these brave Americans out of our military would be cruel and discriminatory,” the letter says. “It would harm our readiness by denying the military of these service members’ capabilities and requiring the military to replace them at a time when the recruiting pool for the services continues to shrink.”
Among the signers of the letters are Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in Congress, as well as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The sole Republican to sign the letter is Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
The senators may find a sympathetic ear. During his confirmation hearing in January, Mattis indicated he didn’t plan to reverse the changes in the U.S. military for gay and female service members.
“I believe that military service is a touchstone for patriots of whatever stripe,” Mattis said. “It’s simply the way that they demonstrate their commitment. And I believe that right now the policies that are in effect — unless a service chief brings something to me where there’s a problem that’s been proven — then I’m not going in with the idea that I’m going to review these and right away start rolling something back.”
Dana White, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in response to the letter the Defense Department remains in a holding position on transgender service.
“The Department of Defense is awaiting formal guidance from the White House as a follow-up to the Commander-in-Chief’s announcement on military service by transgender personnel,” White said. “We will provide detailed guidance to the Department in the near future for how this policy change will be implemented. The Department will continue to focus on our mission of defending our nation and on-going operations against our foes, while ensuring all service members are treated with respect.”