Trump’s recent statement that transgender people will no longer be able to serve in the US military brought the role of gender in peace and security to international attention. The Obama-era decision to eliminate gender discrimination from the armed forces promoted equal opportunity and ensured the most capable Americans could serve their country, if they chose to do so. Reversing this policy jeopardises the careers of an estimated 5,000 (and potentially up to 15,000) qualified personnel, reduces operational capability and legitimises discriminatory rhetoric.
These women and men are not a burden, as Trump has suggested, but a vital component of the military establishment—commanding units, fighting on the frontline and piloting jets alongside their compatriots. A 2016 RAND Corporation study of 18 militaries with openly serving transgender troops (including Australia) found no negative impact on operational effectiveness, readiness or cohesion due to transgender inclusive policies. In fact, the report noted military cultures that embraced gender diversity improved their retention and recruitment prospects. So, if Trump’s declaration is entered into force, it would leave a significant capability gap and prompt a large-scale (and very expensive) recruitment drive to fill the empty ranks.
The RAND Corporation findings of strength in diversity can be related to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security, which called for equal participation of women in conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding. Since then, gender mainstreaming has become a widely utilised strategy to identify and address gender inequalities in government, military, civil society and multilateral organisations. The benefits of gendered perspectives now feature prominently in security discourse, leading to more inclusive policy planning and implementation.
Challenging gender-based assumptions contributes to understanding diverse perspectives, combatting prejudice and developing the most effective strategies. In 2015, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the removal of all restrictions on women being recruited for military positions (including Navy SEALS and other elite units), in order to draw upon ‘the broadest possible pool of talent’. The same principle should be applied today. There is no capability differential between women and men, or transgender and cisgender individuals, so removing all gender barriers to military service is crucial to capability optimisation and participatory progress. Portraying gender as the cause of character or ability is not only erroneous, but a key inhibitor to success.
There is now an increased understanding of gender differentiated experiences in conflict, and the benefits of diversity in achieving operational objectives. But sharing a common gender does not necessarily indicate cohesion or shared experience, and prevailing social constructs of violent masculinity and passive femininity often reduce human behaviour to zero-sum biology. Shifting these entrenched misconceptions requires foremost guidance from those in positions of leadership. A unilateral decision to dismiss thousands of highly trained personnel from the armed forces, purely based on their gender history, demonstrates a significant leadership failure and reaffirms how much progress still needs to be made.
Remy Tanner is the International Security Fellow at Young Australian in International Affairs.