As the House of Representatives debated a proposal that would ban medical treatments for transgender individuals serving in the military, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California had a brief message:
“Choose what gender you are before you join.”
A smattering of Democrats gathered to oppose the amendment offered by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., quietly gasped.
After Hunter finished speaking, Sean Patrick Maloney, an openly gay congressman from New York, took his turn at the podium.
“No one in the Pentagon has called for this,” Maloney said. “The Hartzler amendment would single out and rob a small group of military service members and their families of their health care merely because these folks, or members of their family, experience gender a little differently.”
Just under an hour later, the House of Representatives narrowly voted down Hartzler’s proposal 214-209, to audible cheers from the House floor.
Two dozen House Republicans voted with 190 Democrats to sink the amendment that would prohibit military funds for soldiers seeking medical treatment related to gender transition.
“It’s a hurtful amendment, it’s not needed,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, a noted advocate for LGBT rights who has a transgender son. “I view it as a personal issue, because as a mom I’m impacted, but it’s an issue of fairness for everyone. You don’t have to know someone that’s transgender or have someone in your immediate family to feel this impact. It’s just needlessly hurtful and serves no useful purpose.”
Ros-Lehtinen was among the 24 Republicans, including Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who voted against the amendment. Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart voted in favor.
Hartzler argued that her amendment would save the military money, and said the Department of Defense could buy 13 more F-35 fighter jets with the money that would be used for gender reassignment surgeries and hormone treatments for transgender service members.
“By recruiting and allowing transgender individuals to serve in our military we are subjecting taxpayers to high medical costs including up to $130,000 per transition surgery, lifetime hormone treatments, and additional surgeries to address the high percentage of individuals who experience complications,” she said in a statement. “This policy is costly and a threat to our readiness.”
As Republicans and Democrats hammered out the massive $696 billion Department of Defense budget proposal, leaders from both parties came to an agreement: The annual must-pass bill wasn’t the place for Hartzler’s contentious proposal.
But Hartzler felt otherwise, and her amendment was accepted late Wednesday evening by House Republicans who determine the rules for debating legislation.
“My amendment ends the 2016 Obama Administration practice of the military paying for very expensive gender change surgeries that even most private insurance plans don’t cover,” Hartzler said in a statement. “This amendment does not prevent anyone from joining the military or receiving standard medical care. It simply makes sure our defense resources are allocated in a way that is smart and good for our national defense.”
Hartzler’s proposal comes in the middle of renewed debate over transgender people serving in the military. The Pentagon lifted the ban on transgender troops serving openly in the U.S. military last summer, but retained the ban on transgender recruits. There are between 6,000 and 14,000 transgender service members currently serving, out of a total of 1.3 million active-duty troops, according to recent estimates.
Transgender people were supposed to be allowed to enlist on July 1 this year, but the day before the deadline Defense Secretary Jim Mattis deferred the decision for another 6 months. Military leaders need more time to analyze whether the “readiness and lethality of our forces” will be affected, he said.
The amendment was immediately blasted by military LGBT groups, who said it was “cruel” to deny such health benefits to Americans serving in the military.
“To be clear, this vile amendment is a vicious attack on service members who are sacrificing so much and putting their lives on the line for our country,” said Ashley Broadway-Mach, president of the American Military Partner Association. She said the amendment would also strip “medically necessary” care from transgender family members.
“This is vitally important care that military families are already receiving, and these medical decisions should be left to medical professionals and their patients,” she said. “This legislative assault on military families absolutely must be stopped.”
Matt Thorn, the executive director of military LGBT advocacy group Outserve-SLDN, called the amendment “a mean-spirited, unconstitutional attempt to impede the recruitment of openly transgender individuals.”
LGBT groups also condemned Hartzler for calling transgender service members a “domestic threat” in an interview with the conservative Family Research Council.
“At a time when we should be focusing on the threats from North Korea, and Putin, and ISIS, we’re having to deal with a threat here at home — a domestic threat — of allowing transgenders... in our service, which is a real problem because it impacts their readiness, and it’s a huge cost for our military,” Hartzler said.
A 2016 analysis by Rand Corp. found that the impact on military readiness would be minimal, since even the highest estimates indicate that less than 0.1 percent of the total force would ever seek transition-related medical care that would hinder their deployment. It also found that the cost of transition-related treatment would be relatively low.
“This amendment will go back in an area where we going forward,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “It wouldn’t just impact transgender people who are serving, it would also impact their children. It’s a social agenda that has no business being in the defense bill.”