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Discrimination Ruling Boosts LGBTQ Groups Challenging Military Ban

[Editor's note: This story addresses legal and military policies that bar transgender people from serving as the gender with which they identify. The use of the phrase "preferred gender" in the story reflects the current language used by both U.S. military and government officials. The phrase is not in accordance with NPR’s style.]

DAVID GREENE (HOST): So a recent Supreme Court ruling determined that federal law prohibits many LGBTQ workers from discrimination. That decision is encouraging for those who've been challenging the military's ban on transgender service members. Stephanie Colombini from member station WUSF in Tampa has more.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI (BYLINE): Twenty-five-year-old Ryan Karnoski has wanted to serve in the military for years. He was happy when the Supreme Court decided discrimination against gender identity is sex discrimination, which is barred under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But for Karnoski, a transgender man, the moment was bittersweet. Title VII doesn't apply to the uniformed services.

RYAN KARNOSKI (ACTIVIST): I think that people think of transgender military service as a question that has already been answered and that they forget that this is very much an active legal battle that is still being decided in the courts.

COLOMBINI: Karnoski is part of that legal battle. He and others are challenging the Trump administration over its ban on transgender service, arguing it's unconstitutional. Federal judges agreed. But last year, the Supreme Court allowed a revised ban to take effect while the lawsuits continue. Peter Perkowski is with the advocacy group the Modern Military Association of America. They're a co-plaintiff. He says the recent Title VII ruling supports their case.

PETER PERKOWSKI (MODERN MILITARY ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA): Presumably - and I don't think it's a difficult question - constitutional discrimination based on sex would also include now sexual orientation and gender identity. And that will get us very far.

COLOMBINI: Military officials wouldn't comment for this story. Current policy states that transgender individuals technically can serve, but they have to do so as their birth sex. In the military's eyes, those unable to because it causes them distress or because they've already taken steps to change their gender pose a threat to unit readiness and deployability. Karnoski says he's worked hard to meet all the fitness standards required to serve in the military. It's impossible, he says, for any trans person to turn their identity on and off.

KARNOSKI: Just like I am in no way confused about my gender, and neither are my doctors or my spouse. I'm also not confused about my desire to serve in the military.

COLOMBINI: There's a chance the court could side with the government and say the security concerns justify the decision to bar trans individuals from serving in their preferred gender. But legal experts see that as unlikely. Rachel VanLandingham is a professor at Southwestern Law School and a former judge advocate with the Air Force. She points to a 2016 study commissioned by the military that shows transgender service members have limited impact on medical spending and readiness. And then there's the real-life experience of the years when President Obama lifted the ban.

RACHEL VANLANDINGHAM (SOUTHWESTERN LAW SCHOOL): Really, the courts will look at approximately a 30-month period in which there was no ban. The military was doing just fine. There don't seem to be any negative repercussions from that.

COLOMBINI: Transgender people who served during that time were allowed to remain on active duty after the new policy went into effect, like Staff Sgt. Katie Schmid, who's been in the Army for 15 years.

KATIE SCHMID (US ARMY STAFF SERGEANT): It's very not normalized still within the military to be an out transgender person.

COLOMBINI: Schmid is also challenging the ban in court. She sees herself as a kind of ambassador within the military, helping educate the rank and file.

SCHMID: Being able to say, yeah, I was only out for eight weeks. Or every piece of treatment that I received as part of my transition costs less than the ankle surgery I had after breaking my ankle. And at the end of the day, the person across the table for me is saying, I had no idea.

COLOMBINI: A recent UCLA study found broad support for transgender service among active duty military personnel. Trials are scheduled to begin this fall. In the meantime, Ryan Karnoski is going to keep doing what he says has been his focus all along - preparing himself for the military. So if the day comes when he can serve, he'll be ready. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini.


Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.