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NDAA Drama

Republicans Bring Their War on Transgender Americans to the Pentagon

The anti-trans amendments in the House defense bill are the latest shot in the GOP’s 2024 campaign.

Daniel Knighton/Getty Images
Military participants march in the 2022 San Diego Pride Parade.

Although transgender individuals account for only 0.6 percent of the population, they are disproportionately represented in the armed forces. In 2018, one organization estimated that there were roughly 15,000 transgender individuals in the military, and another study has found that transgender people are twice as likely to serve as other Americans. Indeed, some consider the U.S. military the largest employer of transgender individuals in the country.

Nevertheless, even though the Pentagon faces a recruiting crisis, House Republicans targeted transgender service members during the recent debate over the defense authorization legislation, adding amendments aimed at preventing transgender individuals serving in the military from accessing care. 

Critics worry that these measures could negatively affect military preparedness and morale, while conservatives argue that supporting transgender service members would weaken readiness. That GOP lawmakers, who style themselves as pro-military, made such a push on what is generally an uncontroversial annual piece of legislation illustrates the extent to which Republicans have made transgender Americans political targets in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

“The move on the federal level to pass this bill with these amendments is just a confirmation of what we know to be true across the board, which is that transgender [individuals] are being targeted in unprecedented ways,” said Carl Charles, a senior attorney in the southern regional office of Lambda Legal, a legal organization focused on protecting LGBTQ rights.

The House passed its version of the country’s annual defense authorization bill largely along party lines on Friday, after Republicans saddled it with amendments embodying the belief that the U.S. military’s greatest threat is the culture war: what they refer to as “woke” policies. The amendments related to transgender individuals would prohibit coverage of gender-affirming surgeries and hormone therapies for service members, prevent coverage of gender-affirming care for the children of members of the military, and bar schools on military bases from “purchasing and having pornographic and radical gender ideology books in their libraries.”

All but four Democrats opposed the traditionally bipartisan legislation, turned off by amendments on abortion, diversity efforts, and transgender rights. The Senate is scheduled to start debate on its version of the bill this week, and its Democratic majority is unlikely to adopt the anti-LGBTQ policies. Whatever compromise legislation the two chambers agree upon is not likely to include the controversial riders either, for the same reason.

But the House-passed amendments targeting transgender individuals illustrate a larger pattern: Republicans at all levels of government and all across the country are targeting transgender individuals through legislation. State GOP lawmakers have introduced more than 220 bills specifically targeting transgender and nonbinary individuals, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. More than 70 of those bills have passed this year, including 15 banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors.

At the federal level, GOP members of Congress have proposed other legislation targeting transgender individuals in the military and beyond. This week, Senator J.D. Vance introduced legislation to make providing gender-affirming care for minors a felony. In February, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Jim Banks drafted legislation that would disqualify transgender individuals from serving in the military, functionally reinstating former President Donald Trump’s ban.

“They have decided that this is a political issue that they can use to scapegoat a segment of the American public, [and] that they think appeals to their base,” said Davis Stacy, the vice president of government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign. He specifically sees this as an effort to stave off primary challenges from the right. 

It may be more than simply base-stoking politics, however. “On its face, this is an issue that not only gets support from conservatives, but also finds acceptance across a more broad cross-section of the public,” The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter wrote in February, noting that it “lure[s] Democrats into a fight on terrain that is more challenging for them.” She added: “Democrats would rather fight Republicans on issues where they have a noted advantage, like protecting Social Security and Medicare, than on things like gender identity where their coalition is divided.”

Indeed, the politics around transgender rights are complicated by public opinion remaining nuanced on the topic. A 2022 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Americans believe transgender individuals should be protected from discrimination—even as 60 percent also said they believe gender identity is determined at birth. That same poll found that 36 percent of Americans believe that society has not gone far enough in accepting transgender individuals, while 38 percent believe society has gone too far.

A recent Gallup poll also found that support for transgender individuals serving in the military dropped from 71 percent in 2019 to 66 percent in 2021, with independents leading the decline. Support for transgender rights in general typically falls along party lines, although there is also a generational gap.

Still, Stacy contended that despite widespread campaigns against transgender rights in recent years, the dip in public support for anti-discrimination measures has not been precipitous. “Clearly this sort of anti-trans messaging is going to have some impact. But given the degree of it happening, we’re not really seeing significant shifts” in public opinion, Stacy argued. Although he said he was “very optimistic in the medium to long term” that support for transgender rights would increase, Stacy also acknowledged that “this wave of state and federal legislation is certainly causing harm and marginalization.”

Even though the amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act targeting transgender service members will likely not become law, they highlight the challenges such Americans face. Moreover, a future Republican president could decide to reinstate the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members, which President Joe Biden reversed with an executive order shortly after taking office. Trump had, in turn, imposed the ban three years after President Barack Obama allowed transgender service members to access gender-affirming care.

Unless transgender service members are permitted by law to serve in the military, this flip-flop in policies could continue for the foreseeable future—particularly if Republicans continue to see policies targeting transgender Americans as politically salient. And the next time Republicans control the White House and Congress, they could enshrine this year’s controversial amendments in law. “That’s an incredible risk,” said Lambda Legal’s Charles, noting how many of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have been vocal in their support for policies targeting transgender individuals.

Political considerations aside, the campaign against trans service members raises serious questions about military readiness even as the armed forces face a recruitment crisis. The Army missed its enlistment goals by 25 percent (roughly 15,000 soldiers) last fiscal year and is expected to lag by a similar number this year, while the Navy and Air Force also face shortfalls in the thousands. Younger Americans are more likely than older ones to accept transgender individuals, so targeting LGBTQ persons at a time when the Pentagon is having trouble appealing to young adults could backfire. And parents of transgender children who would be affected by bans on gender-affirming care may also think twice before reenlisting.

“It’s sort of insulting to think that we’re willing to serve in the military but there are folks out there that want to take away our access to care,” said LeAnne Withrow, the communications director for SPARTA, a nonpartisan organization for transgender people who have served or are currently serving in the military.

Conservatives frame their attacks as being about morale and readiness. Ryan Walker, the vice president of government relations at the right-wing advocacy group Heritage Action, issued a statement in February, for example, arguing that transgender individuals should be prohibited from military service because they experience higher rates of anxiety than their peers and are more likely to attempt suicide, all of which, Walker argued, could hinder military readiness. Research suggests, however, that transgender individuals struggle with mental health issues because of social stigma and discrimination. Studies of gender-affirming care’s impact on the mental health of transgender adults in other countries tentatively indicate that such care leads to lower use of mental health treatment, although there is limited conclusive research on long-term impact, particularly for transgender individuals in the United States.*

Walker also argued that allowing transgender individuals to continue serving in the military would “breed mistrust and uncertainty among units that need to know they can count on those standing next to them”—an argument that has previously appeared on the losing side of military debates ranging at least as far back as the decision to integrate the armed forces in the 1940s.

Representative Matt Rosendale, who sponsored the amendment to prohibit gender-affirming care and transition surgeries for transgender individuals in the military, tweeted: “If someone does not know if they are a man or woman, they should not be having their hand on a missile launch button!”

But such legislation and arguments ignore the thousands who already serve in the military, in cohesive units. Withrow predicted that, if the amendments barring gender-affirming care for transgender service members ever went into effect, it would be “devastating” for morale. “It could damage unit cohesion and readiness, because it’ll create division, and it will embolden people who maybe have a more negative worldview when it comes to trans service members,” she said. One 2020 report found that the Trump ban on transgender service members had harmed military readiness by undermining recruitment, retention, and morale.

Despite largely unwelcoming policies, transgender individuals have historically served in the armed forces in disproportionately high numbers—Charles estimated that the military is the single largest employer of trans people in the country—so it’s unclear whether the GOP’s policies would lead to the purge conservatives want. But it would certainly give trans enlistees “pause,” Withrow said. “Is it worth it to serve when I’m not going to be valued as a human or when I’m not going to have the same rights as my fellow soldiers?” asked Withrow, who joined the military during the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” era, and whose career was in a “weird limbo pause” during the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members.

The whole debate is frustrating for transgender service members, she added: “Really, all we want to do, all we’ve ever wanted to do, is the same thing as any other service member: We want to serve our nation with honor, we want to complete the objective, we want to do a good job, and we want to go home at the end of the day.”

* This piece has been updated to better reflect current research on the mental health of transgender adults.