Paula Neira wanted to stay in the Navy.
It was 1991, and the Jersey City, N.J., native had been in the service for 10 years, fought in combat in the first Gulf War, and risen to the rank of lieutenant. But for years, she had wrestled with the growing knowledge that she was transgender — and she knew that in an era when the military was actively seeking to weed out LGBT service members, to tell anyone would cost her the job she had treated like a calling.
To live authentically, she said, she would have to leave.
In the years since she left the service, Neira got a nursing degree and then a law degree. She got the military to change her name on her service records to Paula — the first Navy veteran to do so. She stepped to the forefront of activists working to end the military’s restrictions on LGBT service members, and the Department of Defense’s decision in 2016 to allow transgender people to serve in the military, was “a great joy,” she recalled.
On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that he would reverse that policy, barring transgender people from serving in the military. He was met with widespread condemnation from elected officials and veterans in the Philadelphia region, who accused the president of targeting the transgender community and weakening the military.
Jennifer Long, 52, a transgender veteran from Kearny, N.J., called the decision “a major setback.” She served in the Army for nearly three decades and was stationed in Afghanistan and other countries. “We’ve worked so hard and put our lives and our stories out there,” she said.
Long went by her birth name, Edward, and identified, at least publicly, as a man in the Army. She eventually started taking hormones around 2010 to reduce testosterone levels and introduce estrogen into her body, and in 2012 she retired and changed her name. (You couldn’t be openly transgender in the military until former Defense Secretary Ash Carter changed the guidelines.)
Transgender people can serve with distinction just like anyone else, Long said, expressing doubt about Trump’s claim that having transgender military members will result in “tremendous medical costs and disruption.”
The medical costs Trump was referring to are unclear. A 2016 study commissioned by the Department of Defense estimated it would cost between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually to provide gender transition–related health-care coverage to the 2,500 to 7,000 transgender service members in the active-duty military. The military spends five times that amount on Viagra, according to an analysis by the Military Times.
Being transgender means identifying with a gender different from the one with which you were born. Although some people opt for surgery to make a transition, it isn’t required, and neither is hormone therapy, which would result in a more gradual process.
Conservative groups praised Trump’s move: Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council, a religious organization that has frequently advocated against LGBT rights, applauded on Twitter an end to “the social experimentation that’s crippled our military.”
Those arguments, and Trump’s talk of trans service members “disrupting” the military, smacked of past arguments over who gets to serve, advocates said.
“The same argument was made with lesbians and gay men serving in the military, and that’s also made with regard to women as well,” said Heath Fogg Davis, a Temple University political science professor who serves on the Mayor’s Commission for LGBT Affairs. “I think it’s just driven by a kind of conservative ethos of maintaining the status quo for the status quo’s sake.”
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle criticized Trump’s decision.
“Removing thousands of men and women from admirably and honorably serving is counterintuitive to strengthening our military,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R, Pa.) said Toomey believes “every person should be judged based on his or her merits.”
— Donald Norcross (@DonaldNorcross) July 26, 2017
And U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat who was born in Camden and represents Mercer County, called the news “shameful” and retweeted a 2016 tweet from Trump saying he would fight for the LGBT community.
State Rep. Brian Sims, a Democrat from Philadelphia, said Trump “doesn’t know one thing about military prowess, strategy, or strength” in response to a Facebook post by Philly.com about Trump’s decision.
“We’re strongly opposed to President Trump’s actions,” said Sean Laughlin, the communications coordinator at the Mazzoni Center, the Center City LGBT health-care organization. “Trans troops serve with honor and distinction — fighting to remove them from service undermines our military.”
Selisse Berry, the CEO of the workplace-equality group Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, said Trump’s decision was “unabashed workplace discrimination.” The Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs also slammed the move on Facebook.
“He’s turning everything backward,” said John Grant, 70, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Plymouth Meeting and is former president of Philadelphia Veterans For Peace.
The president tweeted that after consulting with “generals and military experts,” the government “will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
Trump did not say what would happen to transgender people already in the military.
Already, there are as many as 250 service members in the process of gender transitioning or who have been approved to formally change gender within the Pentagon’s personnel system, according to several defense officials.
Before the long-standing policy was changed in 2016, Neira served with three former generals and several other members of the military on a commission studying transgender military service run by the Palm Center, a think tank that studies LGBT military service.
“Many, many trans service personnel have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq,” she said. “We have 18 allies who allow transgender people in the military, and some of those countries have deployed trans troops to the combat zones right alongside our forces.”
Since Oct. 1, transgender troops have been able to receive medical care and start formally changing their gender identifications in the Pentagon’s personnel system.
This month, the House narrowly defeated an amendment to the defense spending bill that would have banned the military from funding gender confirmation surgeries, with 24 Republicans, including LoBiondo, voting against it. Foreign Policy reported Tuesday that Vice President Pence was pushing behind the scenes to get a similar amendment passed.
Rep. Pat Meehan, a Republican who voted for the ban on funding gender transition surgery, said he didn’t think the cost of the surgery was one taxpayers should bear. But he said anyone who can meet military requirements should be allowed to serve.
“I hope this decision was truly made with the military’s needs in mind rather than political considerations,” he said.
Trump occasionally addressed LGBT issues on the campaign trail last year, but often framed his support for the LGBT community around his pledges to limit immigration and fight terrorism. “I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs,” he tweeted shortly after the shooting that killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando.
Neira said activists and veterans were saddened but determined on Wednesday.
“Today is a day where, yeah, there’s anger. But there’s also resolve,” she said. “When you have faith in our values, when you have faith in our country, no matter how difficult it is at the moment, you know someday we will get back to the progress we were making because that’s who we are as members of the profession of arms. That’s what our values call us to do.”
This article contains information from the Associated Press.