Not a tweet from Australia on Trump’s military transgender ban
10 Aug 2017|

A fortnight ago, while most Australians were safely tucked into bed, America’s Twitter-happy president took to his favourite platform to tap out another policy announcement. You never know what you’re going to get from @realDonaldTrump, and this was no different. Across three tweets he announced that his government:

will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the US Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis was on vacation at the time, and sources allege that he was appalled the president chose to unveil his decision in tweets. The US Defense Department has been waiting for formal direction and it’s now been reported that President Trump has approved a ‘guidance policy’ for implementation that will be delivered to Secretary Mattis.

Arguing that America’s soft power is in decline has become all too easy this year. A soft-power index out of the UK found that America has fallen from number one in the world to third this year, largely due to sharp declines in international polling. At home, Lowy Institute polling found that 60% of Australians say President Trump causes them to have an unfavourable opinion of the United States. The president’s announcement, and the callous way in which it was delivered, will only further chip away at America’s soft power. Uniquely in the world of international relations, much of this erosion can be tied to the president’s engagement with cyberspace and his abrupt style of digital diplomacy. No other leader has ever tweeted out policy announcements and given us their daily thoughts in real time.

But if you don’t give weight to the concept of soft power, let’s throw dollars into the equation. RAND estimates (PDF) that there are between 1,320 and 6,630 transgender personnel in active service and 830 to 4,160 in reserve. Given that they’ll no longer be allowed to serve ‘in any capacity’, the US military has an expensive recruitment drive in front of it. Earlier this year, the US Army budgeted US$300 million to recruit 6,000 additional soldiers.

The personnel that need to be replaced won’t all be in the army, and nor will they all be full-time. But these figures don’t take into consideration the expense of security clearances, training or replacing senior officers and intelligence specialists. Even applying a conservative lens to the figures, Trump’s ban—if enacted—will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. On the flipside, the financial burden brought on by transgender personnel who request financial support for transition-related medical treatment is estimated at US$2.4–8.4 million annually.

Several governments have come out online to condemn the ban. The Canadian defence force spoke about jobs, while also sending out a message about its commitment to diversity. Within 24 hours, a tweet from Canada’s Armed Forces welcoming Canadians of all sexual orientations and gender identities and imploring potential recruits to ‘Join us!’ went viral, racking up 33,000 re-tweets from around the world.

Commander of the UK’s Maritime Forces Rear Admiral Alex Burton tweeted: ‘As an @RoyalNavy_LGBT champion and senior warfighter I am so glad we are not going this way.’ Among the many tweets from the UK’s Second Sea Lord and Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, this stood out: ‘So proud of our transgender personnel. They bring #diversity to our @RoyalNavy and I will always support their desire to serve their country.’ Lieutenant General Patrick Sanders added, ‘The British Army is proud to have many transgender soldiers serving their country. Like all soldiers, they are prepared to lay down their lives for their country. We are a stronger and better Army for being inclusive and we benefit from the rich diversity of all represented in the British Army.’

Australia is one of the world’s 18 countries that allow transgender personnel to openly serve in their militaries. The Washington Post recently reported that an Australian Air Force diversity handbook (PDF) on gender transitioning had been labelled the ‘gold standard’. The government is about to release a foreign affairs white paper that has been repeatedly described as ‘a statement of values’. Last month, the government celebrated its election to the UN Human Rights Council, something our foreign minister and her department have been actively lobbying for since 2015.

All of which makes it incredibly surprising that the Australian government has said nothing about the triple-tweet announcement. They would have certainly seen our closest allies taking to their keyboards to condemn the absurd policy, making it clear to their citizens that they won’t be following suit.

Our political leaders and defence chiefs are long accustomed to an online world. They send out daily tweets, emojis and videos. In fact, the Australian Army has developed a particularly good reputation for its savvy social media use. But not a tweet from Australia. Zip from the dozens of social media accounts administered by Canberra. Nothing witty, nothing kind, nothing strong, nothing factual about Australia’s position on the inclusion of transgender personnel in—to borrow the military’s hashtag—#YourADF. So where is our voice? Only days after Trump’s Twitter storm, a diversity recruitment campaign was even launched that provided the perfect forum for our defence leaders to take a strong stance.

Last year Prime Minister Turnbull said that he wouldn’t engage in Trump commentary. He, his Cabinet and our defence chiefs shouldn’t be expected to comment on every development or tweet. Their time is incredibly valuable and most days they have bigger fish to fry.

Equally, however, as we get ready to take our seat on the UN Human Rights Council, how can we shirk important global debates like this? It is vital that our political and defence leaders speak out to publicly and proudly reinforce Australia’s commitment to values in times like this. Because the military’s hashtag is spot-on—it is #OurADF—and there’s nothing but shame in deafening silence.