Gender and Development

How A Culture of Violent Masculinity Hurts the U.S. Military

In the past year, the Trump Administration has attempted to institute a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military, despite the fact that four lawsuits have challenged the constitutionality of the ban. Spencer Harvey argues that this persisting culture of violent and toxic masculinity ultimately hurts the military as a whole.


It has now been over a year since the signing of President Trump’s first Presidential Memorandum to ban transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military. However, the future of this community’s inclusion still remains undecided. Since August 2017, four lawsuits have challenged the ban’s constitutionality– resulting in a revised policy from the White House and Department of Defense (DoD) that has been heavily scrutinized for reflecting the same discriminatory issues as its predecessor.

Even though the ban continues to be held from taking effect, its spirit of intolerance and exclusion persists with full force – highlighting a major push to protect the traditional, and ultimately toxic, masculinities that have historically defined the U.S. military. Trump’s transgender ban is a powerful display of severe neglect and resistance towards the integration of a gendered perspective throughout the U.S military. As a result, what prevails is the de facto promotion of violent masculinities over the merit and skill of military personnel.

When the original ban was signed on August 25, 2017, the Trump administration cited disruption to unit cohesion, hindrance to military effectiveness, and extreme medical costs as the central justifications for the policy’s implementation. However, with transgender persons only accounting for 15,500 – or 0.01% – of all U.S. military personnel, data has found these claims to be invalid. A 2016 study conducted by the RAND Corporation found that transition-related medical costs would, at most, constitute only $8.4 million – or 0.017% – of the DoD’s annual health expenditures.

After examining the military policies of Australia, Canada, Israel and the United Kingdom, the study also found that the inclusion of transgender personnel has had no effect on unit cohesion or effectiveness in three of these four countries. In Canada, the inclusion of transgender individuals has actually had a positive impact on the ability of military units to respond to challenging situations. With this data clearly contradicting the President’s claims, the pursuance of this ban is nothing more than an attempt to frame transgender individuals as burdens to our economic and social system. Behind the charade, this discriminatory policy remains deeply rooted in transphobia and an unwavering desire to preserve traditional gender roles within the military.

At its core, Trump’s transgender ban highlights the historic notion that those outside of the hegemonic masculine model – notably women and racial, ethnic and sexual minorities – provide inferior contributions to the U.S. military. Unsurprisingly, this perspective continues to influence the demographic makeup of the U.S. military. In 2016, only 15.9% of active duty personnel were women. That same year, 70.6% of all military personnel identified as white, while only 17.1% were Black or African-American. In 2015, only 5.8% of military personnel identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Although these figures are unsurprising, they highlight the lack of inclusion and diversity needed to combat the prominent culture of white, toxic masculinities. For example, sexual violence in the U.S. armed forces is a persistent problem that is fueled by and perpetuates the promotion of masculine and elitist values. According to the 2017 DoD Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, 8,600 women and 6,300 men were sexually assaulted in 2016. Among those who reported a sexual assault, 58% of women and 60% of men faced retaliation. Of those who retaliated, 82% were men and 73% came from the reporter’s chain of command.

Among the 81% of victims that did not report their assault in 2016, 1 in 3 victims cited fear that action would not be taken against their aggressor as the main reason for not reporting. Sadly, this lack of trust is not unwarranted – in 2017, only 3.2% of offenders were convicted by court-martial. As this alarming data highlights, the value placed on traditional masculinities and elitism in the U.S. military ultimately fosters fear, violence and distrust amongst personnel. Aren’t these outcomes counter-productive to the desired goals of unit cohesion and effectiveness?

Although the United States might not fit the same model as countries that have allowed for the inclusion of transgender personnel in a progressive fashion, it is inexcusable to believe that the U.S. military is unable to adopt an inclusive, gendered perspective. First, the Department of Defense should establish quotas for women and racial minorities in high-ranking positions. This can aid in creating a visible shift towards a more equal power structure that does not showcase women and other minorities as inferior to white men.

Gender-awareness training in all capacities of the military is another necessary action. This training is essential in establishing an environment of mutual understanding and respect amongst military personnel of different backgrounds and identities, while also challenging the components of team morale, elitism and masculinity that currently foster a toxic system of collusion, violence and sexual abuse.

By recognizing that transgender individuals are not a burden to the military, but rather valuable members, their inclusion involves more than just allowing them to serve. The Department of Defense must ensure that transgender personnel have access to health care without discrimination, while also establishing inclusive procedures to provide these individuals with the proper housing, restroom and shower facilities, uniforms, and identification of their target gender.

As it stands, the future of transgender personnel in the military is still quite unclear. What is not unclear, however, is the Trump administration’s attempt to discredit an entire community of individuals by falsely accusing of them of burdening the U.S. military. The fear of blurring gender roles and identities – just because it threatens traditional masculinities – has taken precedence over an individual’s ability to effectively serve their country.

How can the supposed lead security institution of the free world act as a champion of global human rights when the protective arm of its own country does reflect those same values?

The answer: it can’t.

Spencer Harvey is currently pursuing a M.S. at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, where he is also the Editor-in-Chief of Global Affairs Review. Spencer concentrates on research regarding global gender issues, media framing, and LGBTQ rights, with specific field research concerning the impact of state-sponsored homophobia on the expression of identity and sexuality of gay men. 

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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