Nic Talbott put himself on the frontline of the new coronavirus pandemic – he got a job at his local Walmart in the midwestern US state of Ohio. His first choice was to enlist in the military but, as a transgender man, he was not allowed.
Sunday marks the first anniversary of a ban on trans people joining the US Armed Forces. But with most recruitment stations closed due to coronavirus lockdowns, calls are growing for President Donald Trump’s policy to be reversed.
“I almost feel like a caged animal – I’m just kind of standing here on the sidelines watching everything happen in front of me,” Talbott, 26, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I am capable, qualified and willing to do more, but there’s this barrier in front of me that makes absolutely no sense,” said Talbott, a plaintiff in one of four lawsuits filed in federal courts challenging the ban.
Former President Barack Obama enacted a landmark policy in 2016, that allowed trans people to serve openly for the first time, five years after the military ended its ban on gay men and women serving openly.
On April 12, 2019, the Trump administration froze the recruitment of trans soldiers, although serving personnel were allowed to remain.
Trump said the military needed to focus on “decisive and overwhelming victory” without being burdened by the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” of having trans personnel.
A spokeswoman for the US Department of Defense said in emailed comments:
“The Department is not considering adjusting existing policy.”
Thousands of military personnel have been deployed to fight COVID-19, distributing medical supplies, cleaning nursing homes, and removing victims’ bodies, with more than 16,000 US deaths as of Thursday, the second highest in the world.
“It’s probably the most frustrating thing I’ve had to deal with in my entire life,” said John Roberts, 24, a trans man who wants to join the National Guard, a reserve branch of the military that has been deployed to help with the pandemic.
“I’m ready, I’m here, I’m willing, I’m qualified. I want to get out there. And I want to help.”
Some 1.3 million active personnel serve in the US military, Department of Defense data shows.
There are no official figures on the number of trans individuals in the military, but the Rand Corporation, a US policy research institute, estimated in 2016 that about 2,450 active service members were trans.
As the coronavirus has severely curtailed traditional recruitment efforts, such as canvassing high schools, with widespread lockdowns keeping people indoors, recruiters are using online methods, like social media, to attract recruits.
“Phone calls, digital communities – those generally account for something on the order of say 20% of the time that recruiters spend prospecting,” said Gunnery Sgt. Justin Kronenberg, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.
“Something that used to be a supporting tactic has now become the main effort.”
The army missed its recruitment goal in 2018 for the first time in 13 years, although it did meet its target last year.
Kronenberg, who works for the commanding general of Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Major-General James Bierman, said online recruitment was “more challenging” than meeting potential service members in person.
“We feel strongly that the decision to become a US marine is an important one, best made after talking to our recruiters in a professional, face-to-face setting,” he said in emailed comments.
The US Food and Drug Administration last week eased a 12-month ban on men who have had sex with men to three months, after a dramatic slump in donations, as the coronavirus crisis forced the cancellation of blood drives.
Lambda Legal, an LGBT+ rights group, said the government should make similar reforms in the military, and allow trans Americans to serve.
“The dangers of discrimination come into sharpest focus in all-hands-on-deck moments like this, when we need every capable and talented person available,” said Peter Renn, a lawyer with the organisation.
“But the government has excluded a group of people based on a characteristic unrelated to merit … the military is essentially cutting off its nose to spite its face.”
For Kaycen Bradley, 22, who is helping to train aspiring military recruits as he waits for the ban to be lifted, the restrictions do not make sense.
“There’s a lot of skepticism around whether or not we’re able to do it, but at the end of the day, I’ve surpassed most of the cisgender men that I train with,” he said, using a term that describes someone whose gender identity matches their birth sex.
“I’m able to do anything they’re able to do, if not more … if you’re holding back people that means you’re not really worried about the military at all, or about our safety and defense.”
-Matthew Lavietes @mattlavietes – Thomson Reuters Foundation