Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent comments about his willingness to review the military’s transgender policy are raising concerns that the armed forces could soon be using taxpayer money to pay for procedures such as sexual reassignment surgery as the forces grapple with billions in budget cuts.
Hagel said in a Sunday interview on ABC that he was "open" to considering changes to the policy, which currently prohibits transgendered people from openly serving in the military. He added that the issue was "a bit more complicated because it has a medical component to it."
"Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it," he said.
Hagel’s comments followed a March report from the Transgender Military Service Commission, which was issued by San Francisco State University’s Palm Center. The center’s website describes itself as a "leader in commissioning and disseminating research in the areas of gender, sexuality, and the military."
The report argued that "there is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service" and that medical conditions related to transgender individuals are the "only gender-related conditions requiring discharge irrespective of fitness for duty." It said an estimated 15,450 service members privately self-identify as another gender, according to a recent survey.
The report controversially recommended that the military should provide hormone therapy and sex change operations to transgender people, estimating that about 230 service members annually would seek sexual reassignment surgery. That would cost about $6.9 million in taxpayer dollars per year.
Some critics have questioned the reliability of the commission’s estimates and say they are more ideologically driven than academic. Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders served as co-chairwoman of the commission that was reportedly financed in part by Jennifer Pritzker, a billionaire who is transgender and a veteran.
Elders was forced to resign as surgeon general in 1994 after telling attendees at an AIDS conference in New York that masturbation is "a part of human sexuality and it's a part of something that perhaps should be taught" in schools. She also came out in support of legalizing marijuana in 2010.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said in an interview that the report’s authors appeared to be more interested in promoting a cause rather than "an academic operation looking at different kinds of evidence."
She added that the potential change in the transgender policy would come at a time when the military faces severe fiscal constraints in the form of sequestration—budgetary reductions that could total almost $1 trillion in the next decade if they are not repealed. Those cuts would result in the smallest army since 1940 as well as the retiring of an aircraft carrier and dozens of aircraft.
"To ask the Department of Defense to finance surgery of this kind and hormone treatment leading up to it that are very expensive—that’s certainly something the Department of Defense should not be required to do," Donnelly said.
The transgender policy is not statutory, meaning President Barack Obama could direct the Pentagon to rescind it at any time.
A spokesperson for the Palm Center directed the Washington Free Beacon to recent comments by Professor Diane Mazur, a contributor to the report.
"The question is not whether trans service members require more care than a hypothetical (and nonexistent) military member who never needs care," she said. "Instead, the right question is whether the military routinely provides medical care of similar complexity to everyone, except if they are transgender."
"The bottom line is that current policy denies access to medical care for reasons that have nothing to do with medicine," she said.
The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.
The report noted that some elective procedures covered by the military health system could have more post-operative complications than sexual reassignment surgery. It specifically mentioned mandibular osteotomies, procedures that realign the jaw with the rest of the skull and/or teeth.
Donnelly said the latter type of procedure was "something different entirely."
"When people are injured in the course of duty, that type of surgery is indeed done to restore health to that person to make them whole," she said. "That’s part of the purpose of the military medical system."
Hagel recently approved an Army request to transfer Pvt. Chelsea Manning to a civilian prison that could provide her hormone treatment. The soldier, formerly named Bradley, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for sending classified documents to WikiLeaks.