'Survivor' Star Zeke Smith on Trump's Military Ban, "An Attack on Transgender Americans" (Guest Column)

Mark Wilson/Getty Images (Trump); Courtesy of the subject (Smith)
President Donald Trump; Zeke Smith (inset)

Zeke Smith, who was outed as transgender on the reality show by a fellow contestant, offers his perspective on President Trump's proposed ban: "Though at many levels our government considers us second-class citizens, we do not see ourselves as any less American."

The United States has been engaged in constant war for almost 16 years. Most Americans know little of these wars: Where they’re fought, who fights them and why we continue to fight them. One of the reasons our wars are able to be kept out of sight and mind is that they're fought by an all-volunteer force.

Each brave American who signs their life away to Uncle Sam does so knowing that they will likely serve at least 12 months in a combat zone. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines risk life and limb in forgotten wars out of a sense of patriotic duty and love of country, to be sure, but also because military service has long provided opportunity for education and advancement, particularly to those Americans from rural or disadvantaged backgrounds.

One segment of Americans is twice as likely to serve than the general population: transgender Americans. The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates there have been roughly 150,000 transgender Americans serving in uniform, who, since Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense Ash Carter removed the ban on transgender service, were able to serve openly. We serve at nearly twice the rate of the general population, despite the fact many state and local governments seek to deny us jobs, housing, health care, education and access to bathrooms.

Yet, we continue to believe in the ideals of American democracy and the promise of the American dream. Though at many levels our government considers us second-class citizens, we do not see ourselves as any less American. A great number of transgender people choose to serve their country in order to prove just that. And today, the President of the United States told them they will be purged from service because they are a "burden" to the nation’s military.

As is always necessary with this president, we need to engage in a little fact-checking. Let’s review what our most eloquent commander-in-chief stated through that most noble means of communication, Twitter, this morning:

"After consultations with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you."

"Consultations with my Generals and military experts": It’s unclear with which generals and military experts Mr. Trump consulted with, as the Pentagon was seemingly completely unaware of this morning’s announcement. Trump’s secretary of defense, Mr. Mattis, is on vacation this week, but on June 30, he announced a six-month delay in the integration of transgender recruits to further study the impact of the previous administration’s plan. 

"Tremendous medical costs": A comprehensive Department of Defense-funded study by the RAND Corporation estimated the cost of providing transition-related care to transgender service members between $2.4 and $8.4 million annually, which would at most amount to an 0.13 percent increase in military health care spending. If this number upsets you, I’d suggest writing your senator about what the Military Times reports to be the $84 million the military spends annually on erectile dysfunction medication. 

What Mr. Trump has initiated is potentially removing tens of thousands of highly trained individuals from their critical national security jobs. In 2013 Navy Petty Officer Landon Wilson was a highly trained, talented and well-decorated cryptologist intercepting and analyzing enemy transmissions in an Afghan combat zone — a tour of duty for which he volunteered — when in the midst of processing paperwork for his duly earned promotion, it was discovered he was transgender. He was immediately pulled from combat and separated from service. 

Wilson estimates the cost of his extensive technical training and security clearance around $500,000 — money that was wasted because he was barred from completing his service, and because someone else then had to be trained to do his job. I can’t begin to guess what the training and replacing of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will cost the American taxpayer.

"Disruption": Transgender troops currently serve without incident in our military and the militaries of most of our major allies, including Australia, Israel and the U.K. What seems disruptive is firing thousands of committed, competent G.I.s. The same tired arguments of disrupting unit cohesion were made against racial integration, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the opening of combat jobs to women.

In each instance, a qualified American’s right to serve was determined to outweigh the need to accommodate a unit’s theoretical racism, homophobia and sexism. And with each opened door, units continue to tightly cohere to comprise the most powerful military the world has ever known. 

Though, a "disruption" is precisely what this ban is: an attack on transgender Americans meant to disrupt the headlines which lay bare an impotent presidency, while also scoring points with his far-right base.

What tweeting this ban has done is break a news cycle that each day discovers a new layer of the Trump team’s possible collusion with Russia, not to mention their bumbling catastrophe of an attempt to "repeal and replace" Obamacare or the president’s inappropriate and inarticulate speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree.

Although transgender people net sensational headlines, most of us live pretty ordinary lives. We seek to work hard, go to school, pay the rent, fall in love and use the bathroom. However, the obstacles to achieving this ordinary existence are numerous and extraordinary for transgender Americans, because at each turn we face social and structural discrimination, for no other reason than certain people in power deciding we are their political pawns. 

A characteristic often attributed to transgender people is courage. We are willing to face a world hostile to our existence and endure great hardships in order to live what we know to be true. With whom would you rather share a foxhole?  

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