Coming off her aggressive questioning of top military leaders in committee on the transgender military ban, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) now plans to seek to amend major defense legislation against the policy.
Asked by the Washington Blade on Tuesday at the 2018 Ideas Conference hosted by the Center for American Progress if she’d seek to amend the fiscal year 2019 defense authorization bill against the ban, Gillibrand replied, “Yes, yes, yes.”
In response to a follow-up question on whether she’d propose the amendment when the bill is before the committee or the floor, Gillibrand said, “Both. I’m going to fight, fight, fight.”
Gillibrand revealed her plans to amend the defense authorization bill after she questioned each of the military service chiefs in committee on whether openly transgender service — a policy allowed in the military starting in the Obama administration — has resulted in any problems with discipline or unit cohesion. Each of the service chiefs replied that it hasn’t.
Although the ban on transgender military service was lifted by former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in the Obama administration, President Trump enacted a ban on transgender military service after declaring on Twitter transgender people won’t be able to serve in the armed forces “in any capacity.” Courts have enjoined the ban from taking effect as a result of litigation filed by LGBT legal groups, but it remains the underlying policy of the Defense Department.
Gillibrand also clashed in committee over the policy with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who recommended to Trump that transgender people be barred from the U.S. military with few exceptions. Holding up a report from the San Francisco-based Palm Center that found no problems with transgender service, Gillibrand said Mattis was ignoring the Defense Department’s own data in his recommendation.
An opportunity for Gillibrand to amend the defense authorization bill will come next week when the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a closed-door session to markup the defense authorization bill. Another chance will come up after the committee reports out the legislation and the legislation comes up on the floor.
Either way, there would be significant challenges in amending the defense bill in favor of transgender service in the Republican-controlled Senate. The only Republican members of the committee who has expressed support for transgender service are Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but he remains absent from the Senate due to illness, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), but she has expressed concerns about U.S. government payments for transition-related care.
On the Senate floor, things might be different, although the hurdle could be higher in the likely event 60 votes are required to pass an amendment as opposed to a simple majority.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined 48 Senate Democrats in a letter to Mattis against his recommendations to ban transgender people from the military. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) have indicated to varying degrees support for allowing transgender service.
Even if the Senate were to agree to the amendment in favor of transgender service, it would have to survive conference committee. Last week, the House Armed Services Committee included no amendments on transgender service — either for or against it — in its markup of the defense authorization bill.
If the amendment survives conference committee, Trump would have to agree to sign a defense bill that contains the provision overriding his policy against transgender service.
LGBT rights advocates had expressed concerns with the Blade about seeking to amend the defense bill against the transgender ban, fearing it would provoke a reaction from Republicans who would counter with an amendment codifying the transgender ban. Instead, they’ve said they goal is a “clean” defense bill that avoids LGBT issues altogether.
Nonetheless, LGBT rights advocates said in response to Gillibrand’s comments they have the same goals in assuring openly transgender service.
Matt Thorn, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, commended Gillibrand for her commitment to the issue.
“Sen. Gillibrand is always at the forefront to advance the rights and protections for LGBT service members and we will continue to work with her and others in those endeavors,” Thorn said. “Our shared goal remains the same, that qualified and patriotic individuals who want to serve our nation in the armed forces our given that opportunity regardless of their gender identity and we will all work together on an optimal strategy to meet that goal.”
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in response to Gillibrand’s comments the organization’s goal of openly transgender service remains the same.
“Our goal is to ensure transgender service members are able to continue to serve openly and honestly as they do now,” Stacy said. “So far, we’ve had strong success through the court system in preventing the Trump-Pence administration from implementing their unconscionable transgender military ban. As the annual defense bill moves through the process, our goal remains the same and we are working with Sen. Gillibrand and others on the best strategy to ensure our nation’s heroes are being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”