Transgender soldiers: no big deal

Should transgender soldiers be allowed to serve in the armed forces? Whether you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the truth is: it doesn’t matter.

President Donald J. Trump created a stir when he tweeted last month that the US military would no longer allow transgender personnel to serve. Although various senior officers of the US armed services immediately distanced themselves from this policy-by-tweet, US law means the president can, in fact, order this change in policy (to be specific: his Secretary of Defense can order it) unless Congress acts specifically to oppose it.

That said, it seemed worthwhile to investigate the facts about transgender military personnel and how big an impact, positive or negative, their service has on the armed forces.

When it comes to military personnel selection, training and employment, the yardstick is: unit and individual effectiveness. The military, after all, exists to accomplish its various missions under the most strenuous and arduous conditions possible. To be trite: failure is not an option.

Here's some information to consider:

  • Transgender people are less than 1 per cent of the population. One 2011 study by the Williams Institute estimated that 0.3 per cent of the population identify as transgender. A 2016 study by the Centres for Disease Control estimated the number as 0.6 per cent.
  • A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation looked at 18 countries that allow transgender people to serve in their militaries and found "little or no impact on unit cohesion*, operational effectiveness or readiness."
  • The RAND study estimated 2,450 of the current 1.3 million active-duty members of the US military are transgender. That's 0.19 per cent. Based on this estimate, they assumed 29 to 129 members per year may "seek transition-related care that could disrupt their ability to deploy." This could lead to a loss of 0.0015 per cent of total available labour-years in the active component of the military.
  • RAND reported that "in the Army alone, approximately 50,000 active-component personnel were ineligible to deploy in 2015 for various legal, medical or administrative reasons –  a number amounting to around 14 per cent of the active component."
  • The US Department of Defense estimates that about 1 per cent of the population is interested in military service – an important number in an all-volunteer force.

So what?

  • The transgender population is so small a blanket policy to allow or disallow them to serve in the military would have no significant impact on the size of the recruitment population.
  • One of the most common concerns about transgender service members is the amount of time and money that might be spent on medical support for transition purposes or medical sustainment, complications, etc – as well as how this medical issues may affect the deployability of trans soldiers. The RAND study data suggest this concern is unfounded and trans-specific medical costs are insignificant compared to the overall medical support needs of the force as a whole. The data also suggests the number of soldiers who may become unavailable for duty as a result of trans-related issues is insignificant compared to the number of non-trans personnel who are routinely undeployable for other reasons.
  • *Cohesion is an important concept in the military – it's the military's equivalent of synergy in a business environment – it represents the ability of a group of soldiers to bond and perform together at a much higher level than any of the individuals could achieve separately. Unit cohesion is essential to combat effectiveness.
    • Anything that makes soldiers different from each other can potentially have a negative impact on unit cohesion. But, this is a function of social norms. When women soldiers were an oddity, there were concerns about how their presence in combat units would affect cohesion. However, as the presence of women soldiers has become more normalized, the potential adverse affect on cohesion has become mitigated. In my experience working with Canadian reserve army units where male and female soldiers worked indiscriminately together, the soldiers tended to sort out issues themselves and make it work without recourse to a "national policy" from the eggheads and theorists at headquarters.
    • The presence of transgender soldiers in a unit could have a negative impact on cohesion. So might the presence of gay or female soldiers – or muslim, francophone, wealthy, overly educated, under educated, usually large, or just plain "different" soldiers. Or, it may have a positive impact on cohesion. All these types of soldiers are typically present in most modern combat units already, and commanders routinely deal with issues of "personal fit" and cohesion on a regular basis. That's their job.
  • Cohesion is not the only issue. Both Canadian and US militaries have admitted to having a less-than-acceptable record of sexual harassment. This, though, is a function of leadership and discipline – and not, on its own merit, a reason to exclude women, gay or transgender service members.

Excluding transgender soldiers would neither positively nor negatively impact the military. The military already excludes large swaths of potential recruits for other medical reasons:

  • People with less than perfect vision (65 per cent of the population) cannot be military pilots or civilian police officers.
  • People with diabetes, asthma, severe acne, flat feet, heart murmurs and a host of other mundane medical conditions are routinely excluded from military service.
  • People with certain tattoos (fingers, ears, face) or ear gauges are excluded from military service in the US.
  • People who have used hallucinogenic drugs at any point in their lives are typically excluded from military service – especially as pilots.
  • In 2015, the US DOD reported that 71 per cent of the military-age population in the US was unfit for military service for a combination of medical and educational reasons.

So what?

So, the military aims to recruit soldiers who are in the prime of their life and the best medical, psychological and physical condition possible. This already excludes the majority of the population. Adding transgender people to the list of those excluded – or included – isn't a big deal statistically.

Is military service a right?

Do transgender citizens have a right to serve their country in the military? No more so than anyone else, I presume. Myopic citizens have no right to fly jets and asthmatic citizens generally cannot serve in the military at all.

Our national Olympic teams are selected on the basis of skill, not equity, because their goal is to win in competition – not to provide a statistically accurate representation of the complexion of our population. Our armed forces should be selected on the same basis. Important and respected countries have serious, combat-capable militaries; they do not use those militaries as laboratories for social experiments.

But, transgender citizens probably do have a right to not be excluded simply because they identify as transgender. Even if this right is not enshrined in statute, it feels right and is probably extant at common law. I'll let the lawyers argue that one.

Are Transgendered soldiers a problem for the military?

The day-to-day reality is there are already tens or thousands (according to RAND) of transgender members of the US and other militaries. They are currently serving, largely without fuss or incident. If this were not the case, we would hear more about it from commanders in the field. The logical solution to this is to leave sleeping dogs lie and deal with individual cases uniquely according to the issues they present. If unit cohesion is being negatively impacted by any particular combination of personnel it needs to be addressed by commanders. 

The simple fact is that whether we allow – or disallow – transgender citizens to serve in our armed forces is simply not a significant issue for the military in Canada or the USA. No new laws or policies are required. It's no big deal.