Nicholas Bade showed up at an Air Force recruiting office on an icy morning in January, determined to be one of the first transgender recruits to enlist in the military.
He was in top shape, and had earned two martial arts black belts. He had already aced the military aptitude test, and organized the stack of medical records required to show he was stable and healthy enough to serve. So he expected to be called for basic training in a month, maybe two at the most.
Six months later, he’s still waiting. And so are nearly all other transgender recruits who have tried to join up since a federal court ordered the Trump administration not to ban them from the military.
The Obama administration announced a plan in 2016 for the armed services to begin accepting transgender recruits at the start of this year. But before the plan could take effect, President Trump abruptly reversed course, announcing on Twitter in July 2017 that the military would “no longer accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity,” because the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.” Military leaders were given little notice of the change, which has left a wake of controversy and confusion.
Civil rights groups immediately sued, claiming that a blanket ban was unconstitutional, and the courts blocked the new rules. Three federal judges hearing separate cases issued injunctions against the ban last fall that cleared the way — in theory at least — for transgender recruits to start enlisting on Jan. 1.
Since then, scores have applied — but it appears almost none are being accepted.
The Defense Department refused requests for statistics on transgender enlistments. But Sparta, an organization for transgender recruits, troops and veterans, says that out of its 140 members who are trying to enlist, only two have made it into the service since Jan. 1.
Others have been stymied by the Military Entrance Processing Command, which has rejected some of the applicants and kept others in limbo for months by requesting ever more detailed medical documentation. Other advocates said the Sparta members’ experiences probably reflected the overall picture for transgender enlistment.
The applicants are being stalled or turned away at a time when some branches of the military face a shortage of recruits, and when recruiters have been ordered to work Saturdays to try to make up the shortfall.
“I’m now on round five of rejections,” said Mr. Bade, 38, a waiter and martial arts instructor who lives in Chicago. “Each time, they say they need even more medical information. My last one was a minor document from years ago.”
Mr. Bade began taking hormones in 2014, and had breast-removal surgery a year later. He has had so few issues since then, he said, that he often forgets he is transgender. His ambition is to become a dog handler in the Air Force’s security forces, but he is beginning to wonder if it will ever happen.
Other applicants now in limbo say their transgender status rarely hinders them in civilian life. One is a rugby coach. One is a substitute teacher. One repairs tractors and heaves bales of hay for the cattle that he and his grandmother keep on a small hillside farm in Appalachia. Another moves 200-pound tanks of carbon dioxide for a job creating special effects for Broadway shows.
Most say that military recruiters have supported their enlistment, but their applications have gotten hung up in the medical review.
“We’re hesitant to speak up, because we don’t want to be treated as special, but this has become a huge headache,” said one 26-year-old who is trying to join the Coast Guard Reserve. He said he has spent months gathering medical notes, lab results, hormone records and doctors’ credentials going back four years to support his application. He asked not to be identified for fear that any public attention would hurt his chances of acceptance.
Transgender groups like Sparta initially hailed the court injunctions last fall as victories. But their optimism has melted as months have passed with so few recruits actually being allowed to enlist. Most advocacy groups are trying to be patient, chalking the delays up to the inevitable inertia of a giant bureaucracy forced to change. But some are beginning to question whether the delays are evidence of a concerted effort to keep transgender recruits out, despite the court rulings.
“We’ve heard people are meeting with mystifying obstacles,” said Shannon Minter, a lawyer with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which sued the Trump administration over the ban. “We want to give the military the benefit of the doubt, but at this point so few applicants have been accepted, there is reason to be concerned that there is some passive resistance to the injunctions, and people are getting slow-walked.”
Mr. Minter also worries that the military may seize on unrelated medical issues as a pretext for rejecting transgender recruits.
One applicant in Ohio spent five months submitting more and more medical records, and then was rejected in late May because of knee surgery he had as an infant. The applicant, who asked not to be named because he still hopes to join the military, said he was dumbfounded at the rejection, because he has had no issues stemming from the surgery for 25 years.
The Defense Department declined to make any officials available for interview, citing pending litigation. It refused to say how long recruits have been kept waiting or how many have been rejected on medical grounds. But it said in a written statement that it “continues to comply with the court order,” and that “the time it takes to review each individual record will vary based upon the individual.”
Thousands of transgender troops, who officially came out or transitioned in the military when the Obama administration decided in 2016 to lift a ban, are serving now. A RAND Corporation study in 2016 estimated their number at between 2,000 and 11,000. Many are in demanding jobs and have deployed overseas.
Leaders of the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard told Congress this spring that they have seen no issues with the transgender troops. “As long as they can meet the standard of what their particular occupation was, I think we’ll move forward,” Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said in his testimony.
But the Trump administration continues to oppose any transgender military service. Before it was blocked by the court injunctions, the administration sought not only to keep transgender troops from joining, but to discharge those already in the ranks. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a memo in February saying their presence threatened to “undermine readiness, disrupt unit cohesion, and impose an unreasonable burden on the military.”
Last month, the Justice Department filed a motion to overturn one of the injunctions, arguing that the panel of Defense Department experts who created the Trump administration policy had the necessary authority to ban particular categories of recruits, and that the court had “provided scant explanation for disregarding that reasoned and reasonable military assessment.”
Opponents of transgender service have argued that transgender recruits could shoulder the Pentagon with huge medical costs, and could be sidelined from duty for long periods by surgical procedures.
Those eager to enlist counter that transgender people serve without problems now in police and fire departments and in federal law enforcement. For many, they say, the only continuing medical care they need are inexpensive hormone doses that they can administer themselves at home.
Regulations for transgender recruits require them to show that they have been mentally and physically stable for 18 months before enlisting; a similar standard is applied to recruits who have had other medical procedures. Applicants must also have a civilian doctor certify that their transition is complete and does not limit their ability to serve.
“I think the requirements are reasonable,” said Paula Neira, who heads the Center for Transgender Health at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Ms. Neira is a former Navy officer who transitioned after she left the military in 1991; she helped write the Obama-era guidelines that were kept in place by the courts.
The long delays, she said, are less likely to be caused by an intentional and illegal effort to exclude transgender recruits than by simple bureaucratic caution over a new policy.
“There is no one doing these assessments that is an expert in transgender health, so they have to figure things out as they go along,” she said. “If you are that far outside your expertise, you are going to be very conservative.”
If the medical evaluations continue to drag on, she said, there could well be cause for alarm. But she urged patience.
“I know how hard it is to wait — I waited for 25 years,” she said. “If it had been different, I’d still be in the Navy. But it took so long to change the regulations that the clock ran out on me.”
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