July 16, 2019 at 3:08 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Trump defense pick rebuked for ‘misleading’ testimony on trans military ban
Trump’s defense nominee Mark Esper is being criticized for “misleading” comments on the trans military ban. (Image public domain)

President Trump’s choice to become the next secretary of defense Mark Esper was rebuked Tuesday during his confirmation hearing for “misleading” testimony in which he asserted transgender people who “can meet the standards without special accommodations” can serve in the military.

Esper made the comments, which largely defer to the Trump administration’s anti-trans report on transgender people in the military, in response to written responses to advance policy questions made public the day he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The 2018 report, which former Defense Secretary James Mattis signed off on before leaving the Pentagon, has been criticized for relying on junk science in seeking to justify that ban after Trump directed the Defense Department to implement it in the first place.

In response to a question on the impact on allowing transgender people in the military consistent with their gender identity, Esper wrote the military is “a standards-based organization.”

“Whoever can meet the standards without special accommodations can serve,” Esper writes. “Transgender individuals may serve so long as they can adhere to all military standards, including the standards associated with the biological sex.”

The transgender ban technically allows transgender people to serve, but only if they’re willing to serve in their biological sex (which is very few transgender people). 

The policy forbids the enlistment of individuals who’ve obtained transition-related care, such as gender reassignment surgery, and requires the discharge of service members if they obtain a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

Esper hinted at the details of this in his response, referencing the 2018 report and stating individuals who don’t meet the criteria “could adversely impact military readiness and effectiveness and should be evaluated for the purposes of either accession or retention.”

The Trump administration instituted a small exemption in its new policy: Transgender people who were in the military before the ban was implemented in April and obtained transition-related care are allowed to stay.

Esper references this exemption in his response when asked which transgender service members should be grandfathered into the Obama administration’s policy, which as of 2016 allowed all qualified transgender people to stay in the military.

Transgender people either contracted for enlistment or selected for entrance into an officer commissioning program before April 12, Esper states, are “considered exempt” from the new policy, as  are contracted ROTC and military service academy cadets.

Aaron Belkin, director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, criticized Esper for his response on transgender service, saying the nominee’s testimony is “misleading, and goes to the heart of the distortions that sustain the transgender ban.” 

“For every medical condition except gender dysphoria, troops are evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they meet standards,” Belkin said. “For gender dysphoria, by contrast, service members are simply assumed to be unfit, and fired on that basis, even though research and experience show that transgender troops, including those who need medical care, are as fit as their non-transgender peers.”

Last year, Esper was among the defense officials who, under questioning from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), asserted allowing transgender people in the military has had no impact on unit cohesion. In testimony with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Miller, Esper said, “Nothing has percolated up to my level.”

“Young kids tend to raise the issue in front of them at the day,” Esper said at the time. “It could be that they’re performing all-night duty or didn’t get their paycheck, and this was just not an issue that came up at that moment in time.”

This year, in his written responses, Esper similarly said in response to the same question he has “no specific reports on such impacts.”

But Esper undercuts his own response, explaining why he might not have information about disruptions to unit cohesions one way or the other.

“DOD policies protect the privacy of all service members, prevent discrimination against them, and preclude the systematic tracking of transgender service members to assess their performance and impact on unit cohesion and effectiveness,” Esper writes.

Esper concludes his response on the issue with a vague comment about supporting the service of individuals who meet can meet the standards (which under the current policy would exclude transgender people).

“I believe that anyone who can meet the standards (physical, mental, conduct, and security) without special accommodations and is worldwide deployable should be able to serve,” Esper writes.

No member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Democrat or Republican — queried Esper during the oral portion of his testimony Tuesday on transgender military service. Gillibrand, who’s currently in the middle of her 2020 presidential campaign, wasn’t there and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked about ethics issues.

Transgender service comes up in another part of Esper’s written response to questions on the “Deploy or Get Out” policy, which under the Trump administration discharges all service members who are unable to deploy in combat for a period of longer than 12 months

Asked how this policy should apply to individuals who have HIV or are transgender, Esper writes the policy “should be applied equitably to all service members, and each service member is evaluated for retention on a case-by-case basis.”

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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