March 28, 2019 at 10:49 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
House votes to rebuke Trump’s trans military ban
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) led a resolution against Trump’s transgender military ban. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. House voted Thursday morning to rebuke President Trump’s transgender military ban by approving a non-binding resolution with bipartisan support.

The resolution, which was introduced by Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.), was approved by a vote of 238-185 after an hour of debate on the House floor in which lawmakers denounced the Trump administration’s policy as discriminatory.

On the House floor, Kennedy said his resolution reinforces the American idea that “equal has always been our nation’s North Star” despite a history that has included slavery and racial segregation.

“Today, this House has a chance to not repeat the mistakes of our past, to move one step closer to that sacred promise, by telling brave trans men and women in uniform that they cannot be banned from military service because of who they are,” Kennedy said.

Five Republicans voted for the resolution against the transgender military ban: Reps. Will Hurd (Texas), John Katko (N.Y.), Trey Hollingsworth (Indiana), Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa) and Tom Reed (N.Y.). Another Republican — Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) — voted present.

(Initially, as the vote was being tallied, a total of six Republicans were recorded as having voted in favor of the resolution. But, just before the vote was made final, that number dropped to five. It’s unclear which Republican switched his or her vote before it was recorded.)

The House approves the resolution shortly after the Defense Department unveiled its plan to begin the transgender military ban on April 12. Although federal courts had initially blocked the administration from enacting the policy, the orders were lifted in the accordance with guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court effectively green-lighting the ban as litigation proceeds against it.

Also speaking out in favor of the resolution was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who last week announced he would bring the measure to a House floor vote.

“The Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving in our military is discriminatory, that it denigrates the service of patriotic Americans,” Hoyer said. “That is the facet of their character, they are patriotic and they want to serve, and the service judges them able to do so. The resolution, millions of Americans understand, undermines our national defense at a time of serious global threats, and the this resolution rightfully calls on the Trump administration not to implement such a ban on April 12.”

A significant source of ire for the lawmakers speaking out against the measure was President Trump’s tweets in 2017 declaring he’d seek to ban transgender people from military service “in any capacity.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said before that tweet “there was no problem” allowing openly transgender people in the military — a practice that started during the final year of the Obama administration.

“He sent out a tweet saying we should ban transgender people from the military, and the military has had to backfill that tweet with a policy, and I feel bad for members of the military who have had to do that, who have to waste their time for the last year trying to accommodate the ignorance and bigotry of this presidential policy,” Smith said.

The number of lawmakers — all Democrats — who spoke out on the House floor in favor of the resolution by far exceeded the two lawmakers — both Republicans — who spoke out against against it.

Among them was Rep. Vicky Hartlzer (R-Mo.), who has a notoriously anti-LGBT record and two years ago introduced an amendment to the House floor seeking to ban the U.S. military from paying for transition-related care, including gender reassignment surgery. Even though Republicans at the time controlled the House, lawmakers voted down the amendment.

On the House floor, Hartzler said the transgender ban is justified because the military has broad exclusions on service based on a variety of medical conditions. (That ignores the conclusions from the American Medical Association that being transgender isn’t an impediment to military service.)

“Our all voluntary military is the greatest military force in the world and we must allow it…to make the best medical and military judgment about what medical conditions should qualify or disqualify an individual from serving,” Hartlzer said. “We should not carve out exceptions for an entire population. Military service is a privilege, not a right.”

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers were “rather consumed by presidential tweets” and urged fellow House members to remember the six-month long study that began at the time of Trump’s tweets and resulted in the transgender military policy.

“Well before any presidential tweet, Secretary of Defense Mattis had put a delay on implementation of the policy that had previously been announced so there could be a six-month review,” Thornberry said. “And there was a six-month review with experts, with uniform, civilian people, from all the services, with medical experts, a whole variety of folks, and it is serious and thoughtful despite some of the characterizations that have been made from time to time.”

The vote in resolution comes in the same week that top defense officials spoke out on the transgender policy before Congress. During a House hearing on the annual defense Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the policy “applies standards uniformly.”

Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford — who said on transgender service anyone who meets the standards of service should be able to serve — spoke about the process that led to the current policy.

“The secretary included the leadership and medical experts, then based on the definition of physically, mentally, psychologically capable of deploying, performing in our occupational fields, with the caveat, without special accommodations, he proposed a revision to the 2017 policy,” Dunford said. “That was the process that was used to be able to do that.”

According to numbers first reported by USA Today and verified by the Pentagon, the U.S. military since 2016 has spent nearly $8 million for transition-related care for 1,500 transgender troops, which includes 161 surgical procedures. That’s a small fraction of the Pentagon’s annual budget of around $600 billion.

During testimony last month before Congress, five transgender service members said the time they needed to transition during service was minimal and took as little as a few weeks. Many said they transitioned on vacation or personal time.

The non-binding resolution approved the by the House doesn’t have the force for legislation. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have introduced bills in their respective chambers of Congress that would bar the U.S. military from discharging qualified individuals on the basis of transgender status. Speier has said she’d seek to amend the annual defense authorization bill with her measure.

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

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