February 16, 2015 at 6:05 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Army considering a change in how it treats trans troops?
transgender, service members, gay news, Washington Blade

The Army may be raising the authority to discharge transgender troops. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a new move that seems aimed at limiting discharges of transgender troops, a new memo indicates the Army has raised — or is considering raising — the authority needed to expel troops from the service because of their gender identity.

The document, first reported by USA Today on Monday, says the separation for troops who are transgender must be forwarded to a senior civilian official, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, who will then make the decision on termination. The memo says the new policy will expire in 12 months or in less time “if superseding guidance is published.”

The memo, which is unsigned and undated, wasn’t immediately confirmed as authentic by the Army in response to a request from the Washington Blade.

‎”We have nothing for you on this issue,” said Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, an Army spokesperson.

Although USA Today reported the memo represents a change in policy, the lack of signature or date on the unverified document may indicate a decision on the matter isn’t yet final. [UPDATE: Later in the evening, USA Today corrected its story, reporting only that the Army “considers easing policy on transgender soldiers.]

Transgender troops are currently prohibited from serving openly in the armed forces as a result of DOD Instruction 6130.03, which calls for separation of service members who undergo gender reassignment or have “psychosexual conditions” that include transvestitism or transsexualism. Because the policy is regulation, it could be changed at any time without action from Congress.

Aaron Belkin, a proponent of transgender service and director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, commended the potential move outlined in the memo, but said more action is needed.

“This is a welcome step toward inclusive policy, but transgender troops must still serve in silence until more is done to dismantle the ban,” Belkin said.

Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the LGBT group American Military Partner Association, said the memo is a “positive indication” the military is now considering a review of openly transgender service.

“However, we are still waiting on Secretary [Ashton] Carter and the Department of Defense to call for full inclusion,” Broadway-Mack said. “Our transgender service members will still risk separation until the department updates outdated policy to permit open and honest service.”

The USA Today report on the memo was published just days after an earlier report revealed the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has agreed to give hormone therapy over the course of a 35-year sentence to Chelsea Manning, a transgender inmate and former Army private.

A policy elevating the discharge authority for transgender troops would be similar to guidance initiated by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in effect and prohibiting openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

On March 25, 2010, the Pentagon raised the level of the officer authorized to initiate an inquiry or separation for a gay service member to a general or flag officer in the service member’s chain of command. On Oct. 21, 2010, the Pentagon made further changes, announcing discharges would necessitate the approval of the service branch secretary after consultation with the defense department general counsel and the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed by Congress in December of that year and lifted by President Obama in 2011, ending the need for regulations on separations under the law.

The Pentagon doesn’t keep track of how many service members are discharged under the ban on transgender service. A report last year from the University of California, Los Angeles, estimated that 15,500 transgender people are currently serving in the armed forces.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who’s set to depart the Pentagon on Tuesday, had said in an ABC News interview the ban on transgender service should be reviewed, but no such review has taken place. Lt. Cmdr Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Monday the Defense Department’s policy on transgender service remains the same.

Allyson Robinson, a transgender advocate and public policy director for the LGBT military group SPARTA, doubted the accuracy of the USA Today report.

“I can’t comment on an unconfirmed, unsubstantiated report that’s been published on the basis of an undated memo,” Robinson said. “When and if the Army publishes an actual ALARACT message or other policy guidance, please give me a call. Until that point it’s only accurate to say changes are being considered – and clearly false to say they’ve already taken place. It would be a shame if premature reporting of a change under consideration were to cause that change not to occur – always a possibility in government.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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