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Testifying before Congress, trans troops say Trump's ban will impact military readiness

Democrats in Congress compared Trump’s transgender military ban to the defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Image: Blake Dremann, Alivia Stehlik, Jennifer Peace, Patricia King, Akira Wyatt
From left, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, together with other transgender military members, Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik, Army Capt. Jennifer Peace, Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King and Navy Petty Officer Third Class Akira Wyatt, testify about their military service before a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 27, 2019, as the Trump administration pushes to ban them.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

In a historic first, five decorated transgender service members on Wednesday appeared before the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. They testified that upholding President Trump’s transgender military ban would harm military readiness and lethality.

In her opening statement, Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said upholding President Trump’s transgender military ban would be a “return to the fraught paranoia of 'don’t ask, don’t tell.'”

Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., echoed Speier's sentiment, saying the Trump administration's demand that transgender troops serve as their biological gender means: "You're transgender, and only if you agree not to transition, then you can serve, that's just like 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

Testifying before the subcommittee were Navy Lt. Cmdr. Blake Dremann, Army Capt. Alivia Stehlik, Army Capt. Jennifer Peace, Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King and Navy Officer Akira Wyatt. Together, they painted a picture of a military already widely supportive and accepting of transgender and other LGBTQ troops more broadly.

Each testified that their transition did little to impact military readiness, unit cohesion or lethality — all key arguments used by proponents of President Trump's ban on transgender military service.

"What is the value of having transgender people in the military? Based on my experience first as a combat arms officer and medical provider, the answer is unequivocally that my transition — and so many others — has dramatically increased the readiness and lethality of every branch of the armed forces," said Stehlik, who returned from a deployment in Afghanistan a month ago where she treated soldiers as a physical therapist.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Wednesday showed 59 percent of respondents said transgender troops should be able to serve openly, and just 24 percent said they should not be able to serve openly.

Retired Air Force Gen. James N. Stewart, who is now performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, defended the Trump administration's policy, which is currently blocked by litigation.

He said current transgender troops will be allowed to continue to serve and other transgender people can join the military if they serve in their biological sex and have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, a condition under which people experience distress if they do not identify with their birth gender.

"It's not a ban on transgender individuals," Stewart insisted.

An exchange between Rep. Brown and Stewart turned heated when Stewart suggested that "we are providing an accommodation for one group of individuals versus another," before Brown interrupted.

"I hear about special accommodations, the same thing was said about African Americans when they wanted to enter the Army, in an integrated Army in 1948," said Brown, who is black.

Stewart then insisted that transgender people could serve if they had not yet transitioned. Brown responded, saying, "You're transgender, and only if you agree not to transition, then you can serve — that's just like 'don't ask, don't tell.'"

"So this conversation about, 'well, we don't ask about transgender, we just go for gender dysphoria,' and then when someone addresses it, they're not allowed to come into the military — that's a problem."

Military chiefs testified before Congress last year saying they found no problems with transgender troops regarding morale and unit cohesion. The five transgender troops who testified Wednesday said their medical transitions took anywhere from four weeks to four months, and they did most of it on their own time. All were fit to be deployed afterward. They said recovery from pregnancy and shoulder surgery takes much longer.