Tucson Transgender Veteran Calls Trump's Military Ban 'Hogwash'

Two photos of Erin Russ taken about two decades apart.
Two photos of Erin Russ taken about two decades apart. Courtesy of Erin Russ

Erin Russ furled her brow as she sat barefoot at her desk. Her nude heels sat haphazardly on the floor beside her as she combed through laptop files searching for two photos.

The first was taken around 1986. She wasn’t wearing heels, but a crisp blue military uniform with gold shoulder pads, signifying her time serving as an infantry officer in the United States Army. The second photo was taken about 10 years ago. In it, Russ is wearing a black tank top, shiny lipstick, and red nail polish. In this second shot, Russ looks more relaxed — more at peace.

Looking at the first photo without context, you’ll see a man. But the second shows Russ as a woman. It shows the real Russ. When she sent me the photos collaged side by side, she titled the PDF file, “! Two halves of erin.”

I couldn’t help but notice that the relaxed Russ in the second photo also looked more at ease than the one sitting in front of me in the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, or SAGA, office Monday in Tucson. But Russ had a lot on her mind.

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed a piercing directive banning transgender individuals from joining the military. Trump left Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to decide what would become of transgender military personnel currently serving. Mattis announced in a late Tuesday statement that he'd allow troops to continue serving, pending the results of an expert study.

The directive followed a Twitter thread from last month in which the president said he would “not accept or allow” transgender people to serve in the military, undoing an Obama-era policy allowing for openly transgender troops.

At least two federal lawsuits were rapidly filed regarding the policy, one by the ACLU of Maryland on behalf of six transgender service members and a second by Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN on behalf of two transgender people who had hopes of enlisting.

Trump claimed in his tweets initially that "our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail."

But advocates like Russ don’t agree.

Russ, who works daily with the transgender community in southern Arizona as SAGA’s director of programs, crossed her legs and laid out an army of flaws with Trump's logic.

“That’s hogwash, because transgender people are just as deployable and just as capable and just as dedicated to the profession,” Russ said. "It pisses me off that people who could do as good a job or better than I did when I was in the service are being told that they’re not welcome."

As for the costs of allowing transgender personnel to enlist, Russ points to a barrage of other budget items that cost more than the potential medical costs of a transgender soldier.

For example, a Military Times analysis found the total military spending on erectile dysfunction medicines cost $84 million annually; a Department of Defense-commissioned Rand Corporation study estimates transgender service members' potential medical costs closer to between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually.

As an advocate and a transgender veteran, Russ chalks the directive up to a few things, but mostly to the president trying to appease his base.

“It’s purely a political move to satisfy certain factions: the ultra-conservative, religious right," Russ speculated.

Russ says she feels like the best thing she can do for transgender individuals in Arizona feeling targeted by the ban is to focus her time and attention on being an advocate with SAGA.

“Our mission is to provide support for transgender people to by providing them a safe space to learn about who they are,” Russ said. “And by educating the community so community understands we are not a threat. We are not crazy. We are not anything that anybody says we are. … I’m going forward focused on public information.”

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Molly Longman

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