In a move that shocked even the Pentagon, President Donald Trump has barred transgender people from serving in the military. He made the announcement via Twitter on Wednesday. The move could impact as many as 15,000 servicemembers. The New York Times reports Defense Secretary James Mattis only learned of Trump’s plans on Tuesday. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he learned of the policy change through Trump’s tweet. Politico is reporting Trump may have made the snap decision in an attempt to secure congressional funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. A spending bill—which included money for the wall—was facing possible defeat in the House because some Republican lawmakers wanted to ban Pentagon-funded sex reassignment operations. We speak to Staff Sergeant Patricia King. She was the first infantry member to reveal she is transgender. King has served in the Army for 18 years, including three active combat deployments to Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday evening, protesters gathered in front of the White House and at the U.S. Armed Forces recruitment station in Times Square in New York to denounce President Trump’s surprise announcement banning transgender people from serving in the military. Trump made the declaration on Twitter Wednesday morning, tweeting, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you,” he tweeted, in three separate tweets. Trump’s announcement reverses Obama-era rules allowing transgender people to serve in the military and have all their healthcare costs, including gender reassignment surgery, covered.
Trump’s announcement appeared to have even shocked the Pentagon, which has directed all questions about the order to the White House. The New York Times reports Defense Secretary James Mattis learned of Trump’s plans on Tuesday. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he learned of the policy change from Trump’s tweet.
Politico is reporting Trump may have made the snap decision in an attempt to secure congressional funding to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. A spending bill, which included money for the wall, was facing possible defeat in the House because some Republicans wanted to ban Pentagon-funded sex reassignment operations. After learning of the dispute, Trump took a much more dramatic stand to completely ban transgender people from serving in the military.
But many questions remain unanswered as to what will happen to the estimated 15,000 trans servicemembers currently in the military. This is a reporter questioning White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during a news conference on Wednesday.
JONATHAN KARL: What happens to transgender servicemembers now? Are they immediately thrown out of the military?
PRESS SECRETARY SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: That’s something that the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work together, as implementation takes place and is done so lawfully.
AMY GOODMAN: According to the TransMilitary project, some 15,500 transgender individuals currently serve in the U.S. military. Transgender people are twice as likely to serve than cisgender people, and there’s no other known organization that employs more transgender people than the U.S. military.
Trump’s decision to ban transgender servicemembers came on the 69th anniversary of the desegregation of the military. On July 26, 1948, President Truman signed an executive order to integrate the armed forces.
Well, for more, we go to Seattle, Washington, where we’re joined by Staff Sergeant Patricia King. She was the first infantry member to reveal she’s transgender. King has served in the Army for 18 years, including three active combat deployments to Afghanistan.
Staff Sergeant Patricia King, welcome to Democracy Now! Your response to the presidential announcement yesterday that all transgender people will be banned from the military?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: Thank you so much for having me. When I woke up yesterday morning, I woke up to the news as my phone blew up from other servicemembers who are concerned about what this meant for them. Do we still have a job? Will we still have a job? Can I continue to serve? And I woke up very much in a state of shock. My first reaction was: Did I just get fired via tweet? And from there, I moved on, and I calmed down my fellow servicemembers down. And we banded together, as we always do. And then I laced up my boots, and, just like any other day, I went to work.
AMY GOODMAN: And where do you work?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: I am a soldier at Fort Lewis, Washington. I serve in the 2-3 Infantry.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what were people saying on the base?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: When I got to work, the truth is that people still didn’t know. I was the first person to tell my chain of command what had happened. My leadership was quick to reassure me and say that they supported me, that they have my back and that we’re a team and that they were in my corner.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what exactly does this mean? I mean, if he is banning all servicemembers who are trans, are they going to be going to bases all over the world, not to mention bases here, like yours, Fort Lewis, and kick you out?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: You know, I couldn’t speak to what’s going to happen next. What I know is that I’ve been—I’ve been serving for 18 years now. I’ve served honorably and proudly. And it’s my intention to continue to serve, so it’s my goal to make it so that I can do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the Pentagon has made gender reassignment a covered health benefit as ordered by the Obama administration. What would it mean to transgender servicemembers to lose this benefit?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: Well, I don’t think that healthcare should be considered a benefit, first of all. We have to remember that what the previous secretary of defense said was that all medically necessary care will be covered. And it’s hard to consider something that’s medically necessary a benefit. Most of us who serve, the most important thing to us is the ability to continue serving our country. So, while my healthcare is a concern, my major concern right now is that I’ve been serving this country for almost two decades, I love my country, and I just want to be able to continue to serve.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you joined the military?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: Initially, I joined out of high school, and it was very much a soul-searching opportunity. I came into the military in an effort to figure out who I was and where my place in the world was. What I immediately found out is just how much I love the military. I love the camaraderie and the opportunity to make a difference. And that’s what’s kept me here for 18 years.
AMY GOODMAN: A study by the RAND Corporation estimates gender reassignment treatments would cost the military between two-and-a-half million and eight-and-a-half million dollars annually. By comparison, the total military spending on erectile dysfunction drugs amounts to 10 times as much annually. Your response to this, Staff Sergeant King?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: Well, I’m fortunate not to need erectile dysfunction medication.
AMY GOODMAN: But what does it say to you about the priorities of the president?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: I would be remiss if I decided to speak on the priorities in Washington, D.C. I can tell you that my priority is service to my country and being able to continue to represent this country and the transgender community. There are—I know dozens and dozens of servicemembers who their main concern is focusing on the freedom of our country and continuing to provide that freedom. We’re certainly not worried about the political leanings, left or right, in Washington, D.C.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, candidate Donald Trump tweeted, “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.” Your response today?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: Again, Washington, D.C., seems like a world away from me. But when I get up in the morning, I put on my boots, I lace them up, and I get ready to go to work, my focus is on being a supportive member of my team. And the team that I work with, the brothers and sisters in arms that I work with are there to support me. They’re not concerned about whether I’m transgender or cisgender, whether I’m a man or a woman. In the military, we focus on job performance. And that’s the only thing that matters, is how well you can do your job.
AMY GOODMAN: This seems to have taken the Pentagon by surprise, this tweeted announcement yesterday that affects the lives of so many thousands of people. James Mattis, the defense secretary, was on vacation. The Times reports he learned of this the day before. But he had announced a month ago that he was doing a six-month investigation to decide on the status of transgender people in the military. What are your—what is your sense of what the leadership feels about this? Has it changed under the Trump administration, from the highest levels to, well, where you are on your base?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: Well, when the Department of Defense decided that they were going to integrate transgender people into the military, they did the most exhaustive study on a people group that the military has ever done. They commissioned RAND Corporation. The New England Journal of Medicine did their own study. And the Department of Defense did a study for a year. And in that time, they also sought out the 18 partner nations that we have, who all have open transgender service. This was a detailed study that took a year to complete. And then, the secretary of defense decided to give a further six months just to make sure that we were being thorough. Here in the military, we don’t do anything quickly, because we want to ensure that we’re doing things right. I think the secretary of defense has the best interest of all soldiers and servicemembers in mind.
I can tell you that at JBLM here at Fort Lewis, there’s been no change. Nobody has said that because one person is in charge or another person is in charge, at any level, that I was less or more of a person. My leadership has supported me, and I’ll continue to support them.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Staff Sergeant Patricia King, you’re the first infantry member to reveal that you’re transgender. You’ve served in the Army for 18 years, including three active-duty—active combat deployments to Afghanistan. Can you tell us your personal story? Did you transition in the military?
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: Yes, I did. I came out as transgender in January of 2015, after sharing this information with my family and receiving overwhelming support. I decided that it was time to move forward and that I wanted to live an authentic life. So, the next people I decided it was important to come out to was my leadership in the military. I sat down with them, and I shared that I was transgender and what this meant. At the time, the policy did not support transgender service. But my leadership knew the difference between what is allowed and what is right, and they wanted to support me in any way they could. So they supported me, while adhering to policy. And shortly thereafter, transgender integration began to happen, and I was accepted by the military.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, this is, oh, the 69th anniversary of the decision by President Truman to desegregate the military. Your thoughts on the day that this happened 69 years ago? Yesterday, the day Donald Trump tweeted that transgender people would be banned from the military, was the actual anniversary.
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: In the military, we believe that we’re leaders. We have led this nation in so many things. We have led the nation in the integration of servicemembers from different ethnicities, different religions. We’ve done gender integration. We’ve integrated the LGBT community. And last year, we started the greatest gender integration to happen in our military by opening combat jobs to women and breaking down the transgender barrier. We are leaders in the military. And we are people that don’t see race, religion, gender identity. The only thing we see is job performance. I know that the military wants to support their soldiers, just as we’ve continued to support our country. And I believe that’s what they’ll continue to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you be joining protests against President Trump’s, well, tweet? And it’s not clear how this actually goes into effect.
STAFF SGT. PATRICIA KING: To be honest with you, I have work to do. I’m a soldier, and I have other soldiers that I need to support and stand with. And that’s where my place is.
AMY GOODMAN: Staff Sergeant Patricia King, I want to thank you for being with us, first infantry member to reveal that she is transgender. King has served in the Army for 18 years, including three active-duty—active combat deployments to Afghanistan. When we come back, we’ll continue the discussion. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “True Trans Soul Rebel” by Against Me!, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.