GOP lawmakers introduce bill that would block expansion of transgender veterans' rights

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The Biden administration wants the VA to provide gender-affirming surgery it says would 'save lives.' Republicans want to stop it.

Republican members of the House on Oct. 12 introduced a bill that would prevent transgender veterans from accessing gender-affirming surgeries. The bill, H.R. 5553, is sponsored by Rep. Jack Bergman of Michigan.

The legislation would "prohibit the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from providing or paying for surgical treatment related to gender transition."

Under previous administrations, transgender veterans have been unable to access transition-related surgeries. They could still have mental health services, hormone treatments, and other types of health care related to transitioning, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality's information on Veterans Affairs policies, which was last updated in 2019. The National Center for Transgender Equality's 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that 28% of current service members who were transgender were taking transition-related hormone treatments.

Transgender veterans have challenged the policy. In May of 2016, two LGBTQ legal and policy advocacy groups, Lambda Legal and the Transgender Law Center, petitioned the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of transgender veterans to change its policies excluding these surgeries. In July of 2018, the agency requested comments on whether to move to change the policy. In September 2018, the Trump administration was still evaluating whether to make the changes, according to MilitaryTimes: Robert Wilkie, then the veterans affairs secretary, said that the VA "is proud to provide care, benefits and other VA services to all veterans, including transgender veterans. That policy will remain unchanged."

The Biden administration has taken several steps to change policies affecting LGBTQ service members and veterans, including the policy on gender-affirming surgeries. In June, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced that the department will begin the yearslong process of rule-making needed to offer the surgeries and said they would "save lives."

Ann Murdoch, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association, said at the time, "Transgender veterans have earned the right to the accepted, medically necessary procedures and protocols prescribed by their health care providers without being subject to discrimination based on gender identity."

According to a 2014 study by the University of California at Los Angeles' Williams Institute, transgender people were twice as likely to serve in the armed forces as all U.S. adults. Researchers also estimated that 134,300 people are transgender veterans or retired from the Army National Guard or Army Reserve.

In addition to the changes announced in June, the Biden administration has moved to officially reverse the transgender military ban that took effect in 2019, and the Veterans Affairs Department announced guidance that "all discharged service members whose separation was due to sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status" would be eligible for VA benefits.

In July, Bergman and and 41 other Republicans, including some of the cosponsors of H.R. 5333, Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Chip Roy of Texas, and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri wrote a letter to McDonough disapproving of the change to the rule on gender-affirming surgeries. They argued that the move was interfering with efforts to help veterans suffering from toxic exposure.

"We write to express our grave concern about your intent to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to offer gender transition surgery to our nation’s veterans. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to reverse your decision," they wrote.

Hartzler, Boebert, and Roy all have histories of anti-trans statements and opposition to transgender equality.

Hartzler, who has long opposed LGBTQ rights, introduced an amendment in 2017 to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would have prohibited funding for all transition-related care. It failed in July of that year. A few days later, then-President Donald Trump tweeted that he would reinstate a ban on transgender people serving in the military, saying, "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.”

Boebert has made numerous anti-LGBTQ remarks, particularly anti-trans statements. In opposing the Equality Act, a federal bill that would clarify and expand LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, she said the legislation is really about creating a "supremacy of gays and lesbians and transvestites."

Roy referred to "cancel culture" as a "sickness" that "threatens to tear apart our republic at the seams" in a February floor speech in which he bemoaned efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 as well as Amazon's removal of a book about transgender people by Ryan T. Anderson that stoked fear about transgender people using facilities corresponding to their gender. Anderson wrote that it is "entirely reasonable not to want to see persons of the opposite sex in a state of undress, even if they 'identify as' the same sex." Brian Huseman, vice president of public policy at Amazon, said, "We have chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness."

GOP members of Congress have introduced other bills this year opposing transgender equality, including a Senate bill that would stop the funding of research on transgender youth health care and a House bill that would prevent athletic groups from receiving funding if they allowed transgender athletes to play on the sports team of their gender.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.