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How the Congressional Assault on Trans Service Members Was Beaten Back

On Effort to Strip Health Benefits From Trans Servicemembers

This was a quiet -- but huge -- victory, writes Matt Thorn of OutServe-SLDN.

Vicky Hartzler, congresswoman from Missouri's Fourth District, is the doyenne of the anti-LGBT right in the Show-Me State and a darling of the Family Research Council and Heritage Foundation in Washington. As a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, she recently declared war on our nation's transgender servicem embers, trying to strip them of their health care after she failed to strip them of their uniforms.

Last Thursday, Harztler led the floor debate on an amendment she had submitted to the the House of Representatives as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018. This amendment would have denied coverage of transition-related medical care to transgender service members and dependents of service members. It would have excluded everything from gender-reassignment surgery to basic hormone therapy. The Hartzler Amendment had the support of Speaker Paul Ryan and, at the last minute, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas. Both men actively encouraged the Republican caucus to vote for the amendment.

But the Pentagon wasn't having it. Unlike Republican leadership, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis holds a position consistent with current Pentagon policy -- namely, that it will not discriminate against service members on the basis of gender identity or expression. The directive of 2016 that implemented open trans service states, "Commanders should approach ... gender transition in the same way they would approach ... any medically necessary treatment." Clearly, the secretary of Defense believes that so long as cisgender service members receive medically necessary hormone therapies and surgical procedures, then transgender servicemembers should receive the same standard of care. He contacted Rep. Hartzler and asked her to withdraw her amendment. A fact that his spokesman confirmed Friday: "The Secretary's position is that the Department of Defense will continue to treat all Service members with dignity and respect," spokesperson Johnny Michael told Task & Purpose.

Members of the anti-LGBT right were recalcitrant. They thought they had an easy battle to win despite the opposition of the Pentagon. Armed with a report from the FRC, Hartzler and her ilk fought for the amendment as a cost management measure. They charged their debate with exaggerated estimates of the financial impact of trans-related care, repeating again and again the alternative fact that $1.5 billion was being diverted away from the fight against the nation's enemies. They rallied the support of Republican leadership, they mustered partisan allies, and they unloaded their inherent bias against trans people.

How could they lose?

When the vote came, Hartzler and her coalition of the willing found themselves outmaneuvered by national LGBT organizations, led by OutServe-SLDN, the Human Rights Campaign, Palm Center, American Unity Fund, and National Center for Transgender Equality. Years spent building relationships in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill delivered the needed support. Decades of public outreach and communication about the realities of the LGBT experience highlighted the mean-spirited nature of the amendment and exposed the weakness of the argument against trans military service. In the end, an effective command and control structure among advocates and elected officials carried the day.

This relevance of this victory is more significant than might first appear. Forces arrayed against the trans community adjusted their tactics away from general discrimination and focused on the same elements of gender identity that provoke proponents of bathroom bills. Yet despite the anti-LGBT right's reliance on deeply ingrained gender stereotypes, it still lost the vote. There is no longer a perfectly reliable Republican majority that can be enlisted to oppose every aspect of LGBT equality.

To be useful to politicians, wedge issues must also be winning issues. Only the most foolhardy politician wants to lead on an issue that is destined to lose. Hartzler has shown herself to be foolhardy, but at the same time she has shown that transgender military service is no longer a wedge issue. When support for those in the armed forces includes trans men and women in uniform, and when the Pentagon itself stands ready to defend them and recognize their commitment to the country, then the entire LGBT community has won another battle against politically induced bigotry.

Every politician in a state office should take heed. Building a career based on opposition to LGBT people will no longer yield benefits at the highest levels of national politics. Congress has made a large step forward in demonstrating bipartisan support for transgender individuals. As a movement, we need to press the advantage and remind the politicians of Texas, Illinois, Kentucky, and other places now introducing anti-trans legislation that a record of anti-LGBT votes is not going to get them very far.

The recorded vote on the Hartzler Amendment was 209-214. Perhaps it was too close, but a win is a win. We know the war is far from over and there are more battles to fight. OutServe-SLDN remains committed to seeing a full implementation of open trans service with the adoption of the accessions policy in January 2018, and we will not underestimate our foes' desire to regroup. But for the moment, let's celebrate this victory and recognize what it means.

MATT THORN is the executive director of OutServe-SLDN.

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