White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest endorsed on Monday comments from the new Pentagon chief that were favorable to open transgender service in the U.S. military, saying President Obama shares those views.
“I can tell you the president agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve, and for that reason, we here at the White House welcome the comments of the secretary of defense,” Earnest said in response to a question from the Washington Blade.
Earnest’s remarks come just one day after newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expressed an openness to transgender service at a military town hall in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
“I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them,” Carter said in response to a question from Jesse Ehrenfeld, a lieutenant commander with U.S. Navy Medical Care.
For months, the White House has been dodging questions about whether it supports the idea of allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military. Prior to Carter’s confirmation hearing last month, Earnest deferred to the Pentagon when asked by the Blade whether the White House thinks the U.S. military could implement open service.
The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011 enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military, but openly transgender people are still unable to serve. Unlike with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the administration at any time could lift the ban on transgender service because it’s not a law, but rather a medical regulation.
Although the White House has endorsed Carter’s comments, Earnest noted the Pentagon should handle further details on implementing open transgender service.
Asked by the Blade whether the White House is coordinating with the Pentagon on next steps to lift the ban, Earnest deferred to the Defense Department and was non-commital about any change.
“To talk about what those next steps might be, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense,” Earnest said.
Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Monday he has nothing more to add to Carter’s comments and confirmed no specific review of the ban on transgender service is ongoing.
However, Christensen said the Pentagon has undertaken a routine review of its medical accession policy that’s expected to last 12 to 18 months, although the review isn’t specific to the ban on transgender service. The last such review was conducted in 2011 and left the medical regulation barring transgender service in place.
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the LGBT military group known as the American Military Partner Association, said Earnest’s remarks demonstrate both the commander-in-chief and the defense secretary are supporting openly transgender service.
“So now is the time for action – action to end the outdated ban harming our brave transgender service members and their families,” Broadway-Mack said. “All qualified Americans – regardless of their gender identity – deserve to be able to serve our nation openly and honestly.”
Allyson Robinson, public policy director for the LGBT military group SPARTA, said the Pentagon should heed Obama and move forward with open transgender service.
“To those familiar with how the military chain of command works, the commander-in-chief’s intent could not be clearer: President Obama has done more to ensure transgender Americans are treated fairly and with respect than all those who’ve previously held the office combined,” Robinson said. “Good subordinate leaders take their commander’s intent and execute – they get the job done. That’s what SPARTA’s transgender members, their commanders, and their families are looking to Secretary Carter to do now.”
Stephen Peters, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, commended the White House for the remarks, but said it’s time to follow up with action.
“Considering both the president and the Secretary of Defense believe that all who are qualified to serve should be able to, it’s far past time for this discrimination against transgender service members to end,” Peters said. “Let’s put action to these words and finally change the outdated regulations that still prevent some qualified Americans from serving openly based solely on their gender identity.”
Also during the briefing, Earnest responded to a question about legislation pending before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson known as Senate Bill 202, which would prohibit municipalities in the state from passing non-discrimination laws outside of the scope of state law, including those protecting LGBT people.
Despite the growing clamor of LGBT advocates against the bill, which will become law by the end of the day Monday if Hutchinson doesn’t veto it, Earnest said he was unaware of the legislation and declined to comment.
“I’m not aware of that specific piece of legislation,” Earnest said. “You know, ultimately, you know, governors have to make these kinds of decisions for themselves. So, I wouldn’t weigh in at this point.”