President Donald Trump’s tweets in late July rang out like a warning shot for transgender troops. In three posts, he said transgender people could no longer serve in the U.S. military. His reasoning: The military can’t be “burdened with the tremendous medical costs.” The ban was made official policy last Friday and will go into effect by March 2018.
Immediately following the president’s tweets, SF State Professor of Political Science Aaron Belkin set to work researching how much it would actually cost to implement such a ban. Belkin, director of a San Francisco-based public policy research institute, the Palm Center, connected with colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School and used a replacement cost model to conclude it would cost $960 million to fire every transgender service member.
“If you want to figure out how much it costs to fire someone you figure out how much it would cost the military to train and recruit a replacement,” Belkin said. He arrived at this amount by multiplying the number of transgender service members — 12,800 — by the average per-person cost of recruiting and training, which is $75,000.
“It’s more expensive to train a fighter pilot than a cook, but we don’t have data on the specific jobs transgender service members are performing,” he said. “Because there are 12,800 transgender service members we can assume that they hold a range of jobs. The military actually came up with their own average cost of training, $75,000, so that takes into account that a cook is cheaper to train than a tank driver.”
Trump’s policy directs the U.S. Department of Defense to stop admitting openly transgender people into the military. It also orders the Pentagon to stop paying for transgender medical treatments. The policy gives discretion to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke to determine how to address currently serving transgender troops, so the fate of those service members is unknown. Trump’s order reverses an Obama-era policy that for the first time allowed transgender people to serve openly.
Trump, in part, cited research by the Family Research Council to support the ban, Belkin said. The council, a conservative Christian group, estimates that transgender care will cost the military $3.7 billion over 10 years. That number is inaccurate, said Belkin, because it assumes every transgender person would request a year-long leave of absence and would need a “comprehensive package of treatment,” an assumption that’s not based on actual history.
Belkin published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that providing transition-related care, including hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, would only cost $5.6 million a year. That’s a small fraction of the military’s $47.8 billion annual health care budget, according to the report. The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank, came out with a similar study and found transgender transition care is at most $8.4 million annually.
Discrimination in the military has taken on different forms over the years when applied to various groups. The current ban shares similarities to the 1994 policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which banned gays and lesbians from being open about their sexuality while serving. Similarly, the current ban would force transgender people to lie in order to serve, Belkin said.
“The people who oppose inclusion are trying to justify discrimination. They are lying about the evidence in order conceal that their desire to discriminate is based on intolerance, not actual concerns about military readiness or cost,” Belkin said. “The data show that firing people is more expensive than retaining them, and that’s reminiscent of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Three lawsuits challenging the policy have already been filed, including one by the American Civil Liberties Union and another by Lambda Legal.
— Jamie Oppenheim