WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nic Talbott, a transgender man, was driving his truck in Chicago when his phone started buzzing in July 2017. With just over 50 words on Twitter, his dream to join the military seemed to have been destroyed.
President Donald Trump had tweeted that transgender people would no longer be allowed to serve in the military, saying the armed forces needed to focus on “decisive and overwhelming victory,” overturning a landmark decision made by his predecessor Barack Obama.
“Not only was my career being ripped away from me, but it made me feel so insignificant to have that announcement made on that platform by the president of the United States. It was absolutely awful,” said Talbott, who was in the process of joining the Air Force National Guard.
While the past three years have been difficult for Talbott and other transgender people who want to join the military, legal experts and activists believe a ruling on Monday here by the U.S. Supreme Court barring discrimination against LGBT workers could help those looking to courts around the country to overturn the military's limitations.
“It puts our existing legal claims against the ban on an even stronger footing,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one of the lawyers challenging the Pentagon ban.
The top court’s ruling will not directly impact the ban. Four federal lawsuits challenging it are based on the Constitution’s equal protection clause and not the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But three legal experts said that the Supreme Court decision could help those arguing against the Pentagon ban on transgender troops.
“It doesn’t mean a slam dunk for those challenging the government’s transgender ban but it makes it much more difficult (for the government),” Rachel VanLandingham, a former Judge Advocate in the U.S. Air Force and currently a professor of law at Southwestern Law School.
William Eskridge, a professor at Yale Law School, said the government’s argument to uphold the ban was flimsy.
“There is a good shot that this (Supreme Court) ruling will migrate over into the constitutional sphere. So that (means) heightened scrutiny for any discrimination against transgender persons,” Eskridge said.
The Pentagon referred questions to the Justice Department on the impact of the ruling on the military’s ban. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
After Trump’s tweet in 2017, Talbott continued to work with an Air Force recruiter, but ultimately had to drop the process as the administration’s policy started to develop.
He joined the Army ROTC, but had to leave when the ban was fully implemented.
In March 2018, Trump backed a revised policy from then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that disqualified most transgender people with a history of gender dysphoria from military service, and people who have undergone gender transition steps.
In January 2019 the Supreme Court allowed the Pentagon’s transgender limits to take effect, which were implemented in April that year.
The policy allowed those military personnel diagnosed with gender dysphoria under Obama’s policy to serve according to their gender identity but set limitations on those diagnosed after April 2019.
Talbott, 26, is one of the plaintiffs in federal court cases arguing against the ban.
For him, the Supreme Court ruling provided hope that he could still join the military as an intelligence official in the Army or Air Force.
“It definitely inspires some hope in me that we will continue to make victories, not only in the LGBTQ community in general, but in dealing with what we’re working on with the military,” Talbott said.
The legal battle however, may become irrelevant if Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden defeats Trump in November’s election.
Biden, vice president under Obama, has said he would direct the Pentagon to allow transgender service members to serve openly and receive medical treatment.
“That of course would be the best resolution, the quickest and best resolution,” said LGBT rights lawyer Minter.
Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool