LGBTQ military servicemember

This is a photo illustration of an LGBTQ military servicemember.

Just over a year after President Barack Obama introduced a new policy to allow transgender people to serve openly in the US military, President Donald Trump is reinstating a ban on transgender service members.

He announced the reforms on Wednesday over Twitter:

The move pleases some conservatives who were angered by Obama's policy. But it came as a blow to social equality advocates, and especially to the transgender people who hope to join the military, or already have. Some estimates suggest there are as many as 15,000 trans service members, of the 1.3 million total active-duty members.

Defense officials say they will work with Trump on the changes.

“We will continue to work closely with the White House to address the new guidance provided by the commander-in-chief on transgender individuals serving in the military,” the Pentagon said in a statement on Wednesday.

But according to those covering the story closely, the Defense Department may have been as surprised as the public by the sudden tweet reforms. 

The military is still awaiting further instruction, as Reuters’ foreign policy correspondent reported.

Dan Lamothe, a national security reporter for The Washington Post who has covered the military’s transgender policy for several years, says the president’s announcement is “absolutely unusual.”

For starters, Defense Secretary James Mattis isn't even around. “We were told on Monday that [Mattis] is on personal travel this week, essentially taking his first vacation since taking office in January,” Lamothe says.

In the last few decades, the military has become more and more inclusive, Lamothe says. This week’s decision reverses a long-standing tradition.

“There is often vigorous debate over who to allow to serve, but once they make a decision to let some kind of people in, they’ve never gone back on that,” Lamothe says. “There used to be segregation with black soldiers, there used to be ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ — all of these things over time have been rolled back, but this would be a reversal where it would make [the military] more strict than it was last year.”

Based off the president’s tweets, it appears that all transgender members, including those who have been in the military for years, will no longer be able to serve.

Related: Soldiers don't have to call this transgender officer 'sir' any more

“Now, the question comes: Are you going to be pushing people out of the military?” the Washington Post reporter asks.

According to Lamothe, some like Brad Carson, who helped create the transgender military policy under Obama, say that Trump’s new policy may open the US government to lawsuits, a question that will ultimately be left to the courts.

“There are, according to the Pentagon’s own studies, several thousand transgender troops, many of which people probably don’t even realize are already serving,” says Lamothe. “What becomes of those people? Do they have to keep it to themselves? Does this become sort of a don’t ask, don’t tell-like policy?”

Staff Sgt. Patricia King was the first infantry fighter to reveal she is transgender. She has been in the Army for nearly two decades and says she is shocked and confused by today’s news. She’s afraid she may now be kicked out of the military, but is eager to continue to serve.

Related: Hailed by Caitlyn Jenner, the US Army's first openly transgender infantry fighter

“I have had 18 years of honorable service at this point, and to find out that, so close to the end of a very proud career for me, that I could lose my job ...,” King says. “For me, because I’m so close to retirement, I would have questions about whether or not I was going to retain that retirement, or if I spent the last 18 years working towards a retirement only to lose it at the very end.”

Charles Clymer is a genderqueer writer, social equality advocate and US Army veteran who was with the 3rd US Infantry Regiment for three and a half years. Clymer attended West Point while on active duty contract, and was medically retired in 2012.

“This is beyond decency — it’s just completely un-American,” Clymer says. “We are watching a madman in office unilaterally making decisions without the military’s input. … We’re looking at, not a man trying to cut down costs, but fear and loathing of transgender Americans. That’s all this is.”

A version of this story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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