The military readiness argument is a familiar one.
It was used in 1948 when the issue was opening up the military ranks to blacks (impairing “the morale of the Army at a time when our armed forces should be at their strongest and most efficient,” warned Senator J. Lister Hill, Democrat of Alabama); in the 1990s, when the issue was allowing women into combat (“females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections,” said Representative Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia); and in 2010, when the issue was allowing gays to serve openly in the military (it would “harm the battle effectiveness which is so vital to the survival of our young men and women in the military,” asserted Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona).
Now, Mr. Trump is making another grab at the readiness defense. The American military, he said on Twitter, “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
Critics of allowing transgender service members in the military say they will indeed add to overall medical costs and increase the number of active duty personnel who are out of commission for medical reasons. They point to Army statistics indicating that, at any one time, around 50,000 of the service’s approximately 500,000 personnel are on some manner of sick leave, with reasons ranging from a bad knee to maternity leave. That 10 percent nondeployable rate, commanders say, affects readiness.
Because many transgender people undergo hormone therapy or surgery to transition to the gender with which they identify, these service members often need more medical care than other military recruits.
Brad Carson, who was acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in 2015 and 2016, when the issue of allowing transgender members was being debated, said officials representing the Army and the Marines expressed worries about adding to what they saw as an already high number of people on medical leave.
“They would say, so now you’re telling me we’re going to admit a cohort of people who almost by definition will need medical care,” Mr. Carson said, recalling the extensive meetings at the Pentagon on how opening the military to transgender people would affect readiness. “They already thought they didn’t have enough people to man the units. Their view was, we need to get that number down from 50,000, so they would support nothing that added to it, including maternity leave expansion.”
Those arguments were rejected in a report by the RAND Corporation, released in May 2016, which found that allowing transgender people to serve would “cost little and have no significant impact on unit readiness.”
The study estimated that 2,450 active-duty members were transgender, predicted that around 65 would seek to transition each year, and estimated that the cost to the Pentagon would be $2.9 million to $4.2 million a year.
“So the Army had 50,000 people out of commission,” Mr. Carson said, recalling the arguments that allowing transgender troops to serve would not affect readiness. “The number of people we would be adding would be minuscule. People are in and out of readiness status anyway. We have long experience in giving people hormone treatments — men can get low testosterone treatments; women can get birth control pills.”
And the medical costs would also be small in the context of a $600 billion annual budget.
The argument that allowing a new cohort of recruits would harm military readiness was ultimately rejected in the case of allowing African-Americans in the 1940s, women in combat in the 1990s and gays and lesbians in 2010.
In most of such cases, the military arrived at desegregation before other parts of the government and American society as a whole.
“Because the military pulls from all parts of the country, it’s forced to deal with the same issues as the rest of society,” said Eric Fanning, the first openly gay man to serve as Army secretary. “Oftentimes, it’s made to confront these issues earlier and more directly than society at large. And as a result, the military often helps lead the way for change.”