'Disappointing, 'disheartening': Trans service members react to Supreme Court decision

The high court on Tuesday announced it will allow Trump's transgender military ban to proceed while challenges to the policy play out in lower courts.
Image: Blake Dremann
Blake DremannShako Liu
By Julie Moreau

In a 5-4 decision issued on Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration’s ban on transgender military service to proceed while challenges to the policy play out in lower courts. The ruling was quickly praised by administration officials and harshly criticized by transgender service members and their supporters.

“Transgender service members are serving everywhere in the world,” U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Patricia King, who is transgender, told NBC News. “We are capable and deserving of the opportunity to serve.”

King has so far completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan during her 23 years of service. She said “the notion that our service is somehow less because of who we are is disappointing.”

After serving for two decades, King came out as transgender in January 2016, five months before the Obama administration officially announced it would let transgender people serve openly. “I couldn’t live in the closet anymore,” King said. “It was important to be authentic.”

Patricia KingCourtesy Patricia King

King said coming out was “incredibly empowering." “It gave me an opportunity to serve openly and bring all of myself to work, which made me a better soldier,” she explained.

Tuesday’s decision, however, was “disheartening” for her. “As of right now, if you are not already out, coming out could potentially end your career.”

Blake Dremann, an active duty lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy and the president of SPART*A, an LGBTQ military group, was also “disappointed” by the high court ruling, but he stressed that “as service members, we are trained to continue to do our jobs to the best of our ability.”

“We are in every combat zone where troops are currently serving, and we will stay the course as we serve our country with honor and dignity,” Dremann said in a statement shared with NBC News.

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Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Departments of Defense and Justice released statements applauding the decision.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court granted stays in these cases, clearing the way for the policy to go into effect while litigation continues,” Kerri Kupec, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, stated. “Due to lower courts issuing nationwide injunctions, our military had been forced to maintain a prior policy that poses a risk to military effectiveness and lethality for over a year. We will continue to defend in the courts the authority and ability of the Pentagon to ensure the safety and security of the American people.”

The Defense Department issued a statement saying it is also “pleased” with the high court’s decision and will “work with the Department of Justice regarding next steps in the pending lawsuits.”

“As always, we treat all transgender persons with respect and dignity,” a DoD spokesperson said. "DoD's proposed policy is NOT a ban on service by transgender persons. It is critical that DoD be permitted to implement personnel policies that it determines are necessary to ensure the most lethal and combat effective fighting force in the world."

LGBTQ and service member advocacy organizations insisted that the Defense Department's (DoD) proposed policy is indeed a ban and pledged to continue to fight the administration in court.

"For the past two-and-a-half years, thousands of qualified, transgender individuals have made our nation's armed forces better, in every measurable quality, with their authentic service," said Andy Blevins, executive director of LGBTQ military group OutServe-SLDN, one of the organizations that filed suit against the Trump administration over the ban.

"The Court's decision to allow the Trump-Pence Administration to institute their wanting and discriminatory practices while the litigation proceeds is disappointing — our siblings-in-arms deserve better,” Blevins continued. “We look forward to continuing our representation of these proud and selfless patriots, and reminding this Administration that military policy cannot be defined by baseless and discriminatory rationalizations.”

In addition to advocacy groups, Democratic politicians and officials spoke out against the trans military ban. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said banning transgender people from serving openly goes “against our values as Americans” and “makes us less safe.”

“Prejudice is not patriotism. Discrimination is not a national security strategy,” Perez said in a statement. “This ban is nothing more than bigotry codified into law and an insult to all who have worn our nation’s uniform.”

The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus also issued a statement denouncing the Supreme Court’s decision and called upon Congress to pass legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“This backward decision is a blow to the rights and dignity of thousands of transgender service members who put their lives on the line every single day to defend our country," LGBT Equality Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., stated. “Today's decision is a sobering reminder of the work ahead of us to protect LGBTQ rights and demand full equality. This ruling also underscores the importance of enacting comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, which is why one of my top priorities is passing the Equality Act.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

The Defense Department was under four nationwide preliminary injunctions barring the implementation of the Trump administration’s transgender military policy. The Supreme Court on Tuesday removed two of those preliminary injunctions and one had previously been removed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The fourth, however, remains in place, and it continues to bar the government from enacting its ban. The Justice Department is now seeking relief from this remaining injunction, which was issued by a Maryland court.

Peter Renn, a Lambda Legal attorney who is working on one of the transgender military ban cases that were reviewed by the Supreme Court, told NBC News if the fourth injunction is lifted, it will effectively “bar transgender people from joining” the military.”

While currently enlisted openly transgender troops may continue to serve for now, Renn said the administration has branded them as “categorically unfit to serve” and, in his view, made them second-class citizens in the military.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, Renn said he and his colleagues will now “continue to litigate these cases to their ultimate conclusion” in lower courts.

“Every single federal district court to consider this ban has found it unconstitutional, and we anticipate that will continue to be the case,” Renn added. “This is far from over. The fight continues.”

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