Op-Ed: What a Transgender Military Ban Could Mean for Students
This op ed was originally written by Amira Hasenbush for publication in Education Week.
Five transgender members of the military filed a lawsuit against President Donald Trump earlier this month. The move was in direct response to an announcement the president made via Twitter in July that the United States government would “not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.” That was a direct reversal of a June 2016 announcement by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter that “transgender Americans may serve openly” and “can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.” The directive from Trump also did not address what would happen to the estimated 15,500 transgender individuals who currently serve in the U.S. military or reserves. The lawsuit requests that the policy, should it ever go into effect, be blocked and transgender troops be allowed to continue serving. Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, the Twitter announcement has ripple effects well beyond the nation’s troops.
Two national surveys of transgender Americans have found that 18 percent to 20 percent of respondents reported serving in the military at some point in their lives. Those numbers are much higher than the 10 percent of Americans ages 18 and older who have served or are currently serving in the military. Both of these surveys were administered in 2015 and 2011 respectively, before the ban was lifted on open-transgender service, indicating that rates might have been even higher at that time if such individuals could openly serve. While many transgender people may choose to continue to serve while “in the closet,” given the increasing rate of transgender youths who transition in their K-12 years, a reinstated ban would make more transgender youths ineligible to enlist.
Many individuals go into the military to serve their countries. But the armed forces offer a myriad of benefits in addition to pride in service. The military can be a pipeline out of poverty to better opportunities. For students, it can be an opportunity to develop one’s sense of internal and external strength, discipline, focus, and courage before postsecondary education. Others with nontraditional-learning needs might find the military more fitting for educational and vocational training than traditional postsecondary academic settings. By closing off the military to a sector of our students, the president is closing them off from those opportunities.
After Trump’s announcement, several generals and spokespersons for the secretary of defense stated that there had been no written formal directives or policies put in place to make the president’s changes and that no change would be enforced until such written orders were received. Even without further action, if small biases and words of discouragement can have an impact on the major gender imbalances that we see in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, an explicit announcement will most likely hold back many transgender students from future military service. Telling students that they cannot achieve something sends a message that they are less capable or that the barriers to access are just not worth trying to overcome.
The threat of bans to entire career sectors could also hurt transgender students’ academic performance more generally. Transgender students already struggle for acceptance and the simple ability to attend school as the people they are. A 2015 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality of more than 27,000 transgender adults in the United States found that among respondents who were openly transgender or perceived as transgender in their K-12 years, 17 percent dropped out of a K-12 school they had been enrolled in or transferred to another one because of mistreatment. And 54 percent of respondents who were out or perceived as transgender in elementary or secondary school reported being verbally harassed, and 24 percent reported being physically attacked.
Even for those who remain in school, “minority stress” (the day-to-day stressors resulting from discrimination and bias, both implicit and explicit) and “stereotype threat” may imperil their academic performance. Studies have also shown that students who belong to groups identified with negative stereotypes often have to overcome stereotype threat (the fear that their individual actions will reflect more broadly on a group they identify with and feed into negative stereotypes) in academic settings. This threat can act as a cognitive distraction and has been found to lower test scores and student performance. Such regular stressors can also contribute to internalized transphobia, fear of rejection, and concealment of true identity.
Because of this, discriminatory statements like the president’s transgender-military-ban announcement have direct effects on transgender health and well-being. The Trevor Project, an LGBT youth-suicide hotline, reported a spike in calls from transgender youths in the 24 hours following Trump’s Twitter announcement.
One of the primary goals of education is to open students’ eyes to a variety of perspectives and worldviews, so that they can become critical thinkers in the diverse world they will be living in. A transgender military ban sends the exact opposite message to students throughout the country—that there is no room for differences. That kind of message doesn’t just condone bullying of transgender students—which we already know is high.
In a time when we are moving to mainstream students with disabilities in education; encouraging girls to access all the educational opportunities available, including in science and mathematics; and ensuring that children are not discriminated against based on race, color, body size, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic that is not reflective of their ability to learn; these kinds of announcements open the door to the enforcement of rigid social boundaries. Such exclusionary announcements, as well as any policies that may follow, fly in the face of the inclusion and openness that are the cornerstone of modern education.