Trump's Newest Disaster: Discharging Transgender People in Active Military Service Citing Ludicrous and Impractical Data
On Wednesday morning, Donald Trump announced that “the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.” This decision is the latest in a string of transgender rights rollbacks Trump has initiated since reversing Barack Obama’s directive protecting trans students in February.
As with all things involving this administration, Trump’s decision is ludicrous, impractical and unsupported by data; he cites the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” trans servicemembers impose on the military, two thoroughly debunked right-wing talking points. A recent Rand Corporation study found that “in the most extreme scenario,” trans health care costs for active-duty service members might make up $8.4 million out of over $6 billion in overall health care costs, around one-tenth of one percent (and 10 times less than it spends on erectile dysfunction prescriptions like Viagra). The same report also projected a “minimal impact on unit cohesion” based on existing data from foreign militaries.
Presumably, Trump’s directive would involve general discharge of thousands of trans service members, both on active duty and in the reserves, in order to avoid paying for any of their medical costs. It’s unclear how Trump would handle, say, a veteran who began transitioning after receiving an honorable discharge, most likely because he has not thought about the consequences of his actions. (The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that there are 134,000 transgender veterans, the vast majority of whom came out after their service.) As always, Trump’s motivations are murky, but he is no stranger to engaging in wanton cruelty for cheap political gain, regardless of what is true or just.
Trump’s decree leaves thousands of transgender servicemembers wondering if they will lose their jobs and health care in one sweeping blow. And in the middle of it all stands Chelsea Manning, the former intelligence operative whose imprisonment catapulted trans military issues into the spotlight, who Trump called an “ungrateful traitor” for leaking information, and who is no stranger to punishment without justification.
It’s safe to assume that nobody enjoyed the New York City Pride parade more this year than Manning. Barely a month after her release from prison, the controversial leaker appeared with the ACLU contingent waving a transgender flag from the back of a convertible, its gleaming red paint only slightly dimmer than her smile.
That grin came with good reason; freed after seven years of abuse in a men’s prison, Manning is by all accounts relishing her new life as a free woman and transgender icon. But though the worst is over for Manning, old ghosts still linger. An internal Department of Defense task force report published by Buzzfeed News earlier that week, which was cited as evidence at Manning’s trial but not given to the defense, notes that 26 U.S. military and intelligence agencies saw no direct “strategic impact” on American soldiers’ safety as a result of her leaks.
But though that knowledge may ease Manning’s conscience somewhat, it starkly contrasts with the political rhetoric surrounding Manning’s unprecedented 35-year sentence. Though it was eventually commuted, the DoD report casts the justice of Manning’s conviction into greater doubt than ever before, raising the possibility that current and future leakers will be sentenced not based on the gravity of their offenses, but on how badly officials wish to see them punished.
The heavily redacted report identifies two major areas of concern: “lives of... foreign interlocutors are at increased risk” (to date, no related civilian casualties have been reported) and “personally identifiable information (PII) concerning 23 U.S. military personnel” was published. (It also references the “potential” for damage to intelligence gathering in Afghanistan.) Strikingly, the report also expresses “high confidence” that the Iraq War Logs would “have no direct personal impact on current and former senior U.S. leadership” in the area.
Members of the intelligence community are quick to stress that this doesn’t mean Manning’s leaks were harmless. Speaking anonymously to AlterNet, a former U.S. intelligence operative said that although nobody was hurt and Manning’s intentions were “noble,” “I would argue that’s more a function of luck than planning.”
“Second and third order effects on a battlefield are really hard to control once information leaks out,” she continued. “Those types of issues are also hard to quantify in a casualty estimate.”
Still, it’s difficult to square the nebulous, potentially nonexistent personal harm caused by Manning’s leaks with the venomous accusations directed at her by military officials and politicians. Unable to directly link the leaks to any military or civilian casualties, prosecutors at Manning’s trial nevertheless argued for a 60-year sentence as a deterrent and sought convictions on capital offenses like aiding the enemy, provocatively characterizing Manning as "evil."
It was a statement consistent with U.S. policy to that point. Then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said in 2010 that Manning “might already have on [her] hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.” (In previous years, Mullen was responsible for banning masks for Iraqi interpreters, over 1,000 of whom are believed to have been assassinated since 2003.) And although then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately reassured diplomats that the leaks posed no danger, she publicly lambasted Manning for “threaten[ing] our national security” and “sabotaging the peace.”
Manning’s story is riddled with contradictions like these, especially regarding her imprisonment. She was held in solitary confinement for 11 months before her trial even began. While authorities would later claim this was standard protective custody (President Obama assured fundraiser attendees in March 2011 that “the procedures that have been taken in terms of [her] confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards... some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well”), U.N. special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez later declared that her treatment “constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture."
In fact, the effects were more severe than almost anyone knew—except Manning’s military captors. Her diagnosis of gender dysphoria in May 2010, before her arrest, remained a secret to the public but was known to her commanding officers, a major factor in her de facto solitary confinement. Manning would later write in an open letter to President Obama that “I repeatedly asked for help for my gender dysphoria. [...] Instead, I believe they used my diagnosis as a weapon against me. I feel that they used it as a tool to justify their harsh treatment.”
That treatment wasn’t limited to those months in solitary; throughout her term, Manning was the victim of what appeared to be targeted harassment at the hands of prison guards and officials, often connected to her transgender status. Being kept in a male prison and forced to wear her hair short was bad enough (her requests for a transfer to a women’s prison were never granted). And although she was eventually allowed female-issue undergarments and cosmetics, her request for hormone replacement therapy was not granted until 2015. Later that year, she was penalized for possessing “prohibited property,” primarily trans-related reading material and expired toothpaste, for which she was threatened with indefinite solitary confinement and received three weeks of restricted privileges. Her next time in solitary would come as punishment for a suicide attempt in July 2016—her first of two, which her lawyers have said were directly related to the government’s reluctance to treat the dysphoria she’d been living with for years.
Manning’s accusations that the military weaponized her transness against her aren’t just speculation, and they aren’t unique, either. Transgender people in the military only received permission to serve openly last year, and still face incredible prejudice. While attitudes toward trans people are undergoing a gradual positive shift among younger soldiers, older people are more likely to hold firmly negative views, and that includes commanding officers.
One respondent to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey said that “[a] year after returning from deployment, I was kept in under penal conditions. I was demoted from a sergeant to a private, the lowest rank in the army.” Another wrote that “[w]hen I sought assistance from the Equal Opportunity Office [regarding harassment], I was told that they were unable to help because transgender individuals are not protected against harassment in the military.” AlterNet’s intelligence source, herself a trans woman, confides that she experienced “levels” of transphobia while transitioning at work, citing retaliation concerns as her primary reason for remaining anonymous.
These attitudes can have devastating physical consequences. In her 2016 book Sexual Assault in the U.S. Military, Rosemarie Skaine writes: “Of the 26 percent of transgendered [sic] veterans who have been physically assaulted, 64 percent attempted suicide, and 16 percent have been raped.” Skaine specifically notes that discriminatory attitudes against transgender people can be “the basis for sexual assault.” In other words, assault and rape can be inspired (and excused) by feelings that the victim “deserved it.” And while Chelsea Manning wasn’t imprisoned for being transgender (though it’s anyone’s guess whether inaccurately presented evidence about her dysphoria prejudiced the court), it’s now impossible to deny that the U.S. government exaggerated her crimes in order to make an example of her and prove she “deserved” human rights-violating punishments.
For her part, Manning is in the clear, free to heal and rediscover herself at last. But what does this mean for future intelligence leakers, regardless of gender? It’s tough to say. AlterNet’s anonymous source says that although she believes Manning’s sentence was an “outlier”—and an “unfair and outrageous” one at that—“I can’t qualify that because there aren’t a whole lot of similar cases to compare to.” Given Trump’s vendetta against leakers, it’s not far-fetched to imagine his administration pressuring military judges to impose similar sentences on future leakers.
But Manning’s case sets another precedent whereby even Democratic politicians will condone or endorse violations of human and/or civil rights, while still maintaining their liberal credibility (while many GOP pols, like Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy, are hostile to the point of bigotry). Gary Peters (D-MI)—whose website lists “Fighting for Civil Rights” as his number-two issue, and touts his work for LGBT rights in particular—told The Hill that “I was disappointed [by the commutation]” even though “I certainly haven’t read all the details about it.” Mark Warner (D-VA) opined that the commutation sent “the wrong signal.” Warner’s position as Vice Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence has thrust him into the spotlight in the ongoing Trump investigations, making him a key figure in the Democratic opposition.
Warner’s colleague on the committee, Joe Manchin (D-W.VA), took the rhetoric even further. Making the morning show rounds in January, Manchin called the decision “absolutely dead wrong,” stating “the intelligence community, I trust them, I believe in them, and they're giving us good information… I'm not giving a green light to anyone who wants to do harm to this country." (None of the senators replied to AlterNet’s request for comment.) These comments, especially Manchin’s, are deeply troubling, as they display a willingness to ignore facts similar to most current White House spokespeople—the same intelligence community Manchin claims to trust produced the DoD report in the first place.
Chelsea Manning now must bear the physical and mental trauma of her ordeal. Since she’s still technically on active duty, she receives medical care for her transition and assorted other needs, like the dental damage she sustained in solitary confinement. If Trump issues her a general discharge, how will she pay her medical costs? Will he justify it because she’s one of his despised leakers? Will the Democrats offer any meaningful resistance to her further persecution, or to the ruination of many thousands of lives?
Manning’s sad story sets less of a legal precedent than a moral and political one. Even politicians who claim to defend the marginalized and seek justice above all will condone the indefensible if it fits their agenda. Despite these revelations, the door is still wide open for another miscarriage of justice like Manning’s, whether motivated by leaks, gender identity or both. Trump’s callous and unnecessary ban is simply a message, saying he’s glad that door is still open, and that he intends to make sure it never closes.