WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers introduced new legislation Thursday designed to block President Donald Trump’s rules regarding transgender troops by removing any limits to their service.
“This bill makes it clear to our brave transgender troops that we see them and that we honor the risks they take,” California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier said in a statement on the bill. “The president’s ban is not only hateful and un-American, it harms military readiness and morale and ultimately makes our country less strong.”
The move comes about two weeks after a Supreme Court ruling upheld new Defense Department rules on transgender troops. In a 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that the administration may move ahead with a ban on transgender recruits.
Pentagon officials said after the ruling that they would not yet move ahead with the transgender military ban because of other pending legal challenges still moving through the federal court system.
Thursday’s legislation would erase Trump’s planned limits, allowing any transgender individuals “who are qualified and meet standards” to enlist in the military.
The legislation faces a favorable road towards passage in the House, where the Democratic majority controls the chamber. Speier, who is the chairwoman of the House Armed Services personnel panel, has a promised hearing on the issue later this month, featuring some of the troops affected by Trump’s policies.
But the proposal faces much more opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins has signed on to mirror legislation introduced by Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, and Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, but GOP leadership has dismissed the issue as social engineering that hurts military morale.
Even if the measures were to pass the Senate, the final bill would have to be signed by Trump before it could become law.
Regardless, supporters said advancing the legislation sends an important message to the entire military force about equality and readiness.
“The president’s bigoted decision to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military, carries with it echoes of some of the most ignorant, intolerant moments in our history that saw women, black Americans, gays and lesbians barred from fully participating in our armed forces,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., and vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Outside advocates also hailed the move. Jennifer Levi, a director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, praised the proposals as “stepping in to protect our troops.”
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said the current ban amounts to “the Pentagon shooting itself in the foot for no reason other than Trump-era politics."
Officials at the American Military Partner Association echoed that worry.
“Thousands of qualified, patriotic transgender Americans raised their right hands and pledged an oath to defend the United States by serving in the military,” said AMPA President Ashley Broadway-Mack in a statement. “Instead of being singled out by the Trump-Pence administration for discrimination, these brave, highly trained warriors deserve our nation’s utmost support and thanks."
In 2016, then-President Barack Obama announced that transgender individuals in the military would be allowed to serve openly and receive medical services for gender reassignment surgery. He also set a July 2017 target for allowing enlistment of new transgender recruits.
But Trump halted those plans after taking office. In March 2018, his administration announced a reversal of existing policies, replacing the rules with a ban on new transgender recruits.
The new policy has an exception for transgender troops who relied on the Obama-era rules to begin the process of changing their gender. The military said last year that more than 900 men and women have opted for that.
Past Defense Department estimates have said as many as 7,000 transgender individuals may currently be serving in the ranks. Six transgender service members were among Democratic lawmakers guests for this week’s State of the Union address.
Reporter Tara Copp contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.