Injunction gives hope to transgender veterans, families

- U.S. Air Force Veteran Nicole Vanderheiden sat on a sofa inside OutFront Minnesota’s headquarters Monday afternoon with clasped hands, happy for the moment but aware of the long road ahead. 

She had won a victory, however small, when U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a preliminary injunction Monday to suspend President Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military, but maintains the move isn't worth celebrating just yet.

“This is not a complete victory, this is a start,” the former Arabic language intelligence analyst said. “It’s an acknowledgement that there are portions of this policy that are clearly harmful to our current service members who are transgender.”

Vanderheiden is now the lead organizer on trans issues at a progressive PAC for service members, veterans and families called Common Defense PAC, and says despite Monday's news trans troops still navigate a period of great uncertainty.

“They’re not even sure whether or not they’re welcome in their own military that they’ve served for years,” she said.

Through her advocacy work, Vanderheiden keeps in close contact with active trans service members, and says the military had been in chaos over how to consistently apply the President’s policy since his tweets in July.

The injunction reinstates a timeline to let transgender applicants join the military starting in 2018, but the order does not block a policy concerning the use of military resources to fund gender reassignment surgeries, claiming the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction over that portion of the policy.

“They're still being denied medically necessary healthcare,” Vanderheiden said. “The cost of the medically necessary health care that's required for transgender individuals, from my understanding, is one-eighth the amount of Viagra they're providing for the troops."

The Pentagon originally announced in 2016 that transgender Americans may openly join and serve in the U.S. military.

“Because the 2016 policy had not been fully implemented, nobody’s really sure what part of the 2016 policy still applies and what part doesn’t,” Vanderheiden said.

The announcement was still a clear step away from the limbo that left transgender soldiers ineligible for promotions and treated them according to their gender assigned at birth, she said. Troops who came out could be discharged purely on the basis of their identity, and service members who were openly trans were often considered unfit for duty.

Yet, for now, the Trump Administration’s attempt to make trans service members subject to discharge has in large part been halted--which means Vanderheiden may soon revisit her aspirations to reenlist. 

“It gives me a small amount of hope," she said. "I refuse to overstate the likelihood of this policy being dismantled once and for all. it gives me a small amount of hope that one day I and a number of other transgender troops and veterans and potential enlistees will be able to continue to serve our country.”

Vanderheiden was active in the Air Force from 2006-'12 when she decided to advance her education in the hopes of reenlisting as an officer.

Until she makes yet another career decision she remains of firm conviction that her skills, and those of all trans Americans, are valuable and in high demand. 

“Our military force is strongest when it represents our nation," Vanderheiden said. "When you prevent entire demographics of people--categories and classes of individuals--from serving, then you by consequence do not have that representative military.”

Meanwhile, the judge also said Monday that service members who sued over Trump’s policy will likely win their lawsuits, though debates over the cases’ merits will continue.

At least four service members have filed federal lawsuits since July.

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