Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday has lifted “effective immediately” the ban on openly transgender people from serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Carter announced the change at a news briefing at the Pentagon in addition to a year-long implementation plan that includes providing transgender service members with all transition-related care, including gender reassignment surgery, developing a commander’s handbook and adding transgender status to the military’s non-discrimination policy.
The change comes after Carter initiated in July 2015 a review of the medical regulation barring transgender military service — instituted before 1983 — with the goal of changing the policy. Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in 2010 enabled openly gay people to serve in armed forces, openly trans people remained excluded as a result of the regulation.
“As a result of this year-long study, I’m announcing today that we are ending the ban on transgender Americans in the United States military,” Carter said. “Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.”
Transgender activists who had called upon the Pentagon to lift its ban on openly transgender people from serving in the U.S. military hailed the change as historic.
Aaron Belkin, director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, said the U.S. military has “taken a sweeping step to advance readiness.”
“In ending discrimination that had no basis in medical science or military necessity, Secretary Carter is enhancing readiness as well as core values of honesty and integrity, an enormous accomplishment with a durable impact on all service members,” Belkin said.
Sue Fulton, president of the LGBT military group SPARTA, said the first day of openly transgender service fulfills a promise from Carter “that every American who is qualified to serve will be allowed to serve.”
“The thousands of transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen – and their commanders – have one less burden on their shoulders today,” Fulton said. “We are grateful to the military and civilian leaders in the Department of Defense who worked so hard to get this right.”
Present during the news conference as an attendee was Amanda Carter, deputy assistant defense secretary for operational energy and the first openly transgender woman political appointee of any presidential administration.
Carter said he’s implementing the change to make certain the military has access to talented Americans, to protect transgender people currently in the armed forces and to act on principle.
“Americans who want to serve and can meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete to do so,” Carter said. “After all, our all-volunteer force is built upon having the most qualified Americans. And the profession of arms is based on honor and trust.”
Based on the study conducted by the RAND Corp., Carter is the best estimate for the number of transgender people in the U.S. military is about 2,500 people out of 1.3 million active-duty service members and about 1,500 out of 825,000 members of the Reserve. Carter acknowledged other estimates that around 7,000 transgender people are on active duty and 4,000 are in the Reserve.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said before the decision was announced the policy change was made by Pentagon leaders and he would comment on the process, but not the result.
“What I can say about this is that what Secretary Carter announced today was the result of a review that was conducted at the Department of Defense,” Earnest said. “In announcing that review, Secretary Carter indicated his belief that every American who is appropriately qualified to do so should be able to serve their country in the military, and that by having that kind of approach, our country is safer and our military is stronger. The president agrees with that general approach.”
As a result of the immediate effect of the announcement, transgender service members currently on duty are now able to serve openly without any fear of discharge because of their gender identity.
The next stage of implementation is set for completion on October 1, when the Defense Department will distribute a yet-to-be created training handbook for military commanders with transgender subordinates.
Also at this time, the services will be required to offer transition-related care to transgender service members in accordance with their gender identity and they may change their gender markers in DEERS, a database of troops and their dependents who are entitled to receive benefits. Prior to October 1, requests for medical care from transgender service members will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Beginning on July 1, 2017 services will begin allowing transgender service members to join the armed forces provided they same accession standards. Additionally, being transgender cannot be a basis to bar someone from admission to a military service academy, participation in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps or any accession program.
The planned policy for allowing transgender people into the armed forces at that time, Carter said, will require them to have completed any medical treatment that their doctor has determined is necessary in connection with their gender transition and to have “been stable in their identified gender for 18 months” before they can enlist.
Carter said he’s directed a review of this standard no later than 24 months from now to “ensure it reflects what more we learn over the next two years as this is implemented as well as the most up to date medical knowledge.”
Under questioning from the Washington Blade during the news conference, Carter indicated all transition-related care, including gender reassignment surgery, would be covered by the military’s health care plan following the change.
“The medical standards don’t change,” Carter said. “Transgender service members, like all other service members, will get all the medical care their doctors deem necessary. They’re have to do that subject to — if it’s not an urgent medical care — subject to their commanders because if they need to be deployed, they need to be deployed. It’s normal that if you have a procedure which is not urgent that you have to defer that if you’re being deployed, so we’re not going to have any different medical policy for transgender service members.”
In response to a question from another reporter on whether gender reassignment surgery would be covered if a doctor deemed that procedure medically necessary, Carter replied, “That’s correct.”
Also in response to a question from the Blade, Carter affirmed the Pentagon would add transgender status to the Military Equal Opportunity policy, the non-discrimination rule governing the armed forces. Senior defense officials later said gender identity would be added to the policy effectively immediately at the same time Carter lifted the transgender ban.
Because the changes are regulatory, the next administration could reverse them if it were hostile to transgender military service. In fact, some of the planned steps for implementation won’t be final until six months after the new president is in office. Senior defense officials declined to speculate on what impact a future administration could have on reversing the changes.
The announcement comes the day after the Associated Press reported the military service chiefs expressed deep concerns to Carter about implementing openly transgender service and sought more time to address details and questions they thought were unresolved.
During the news conference, Carter said the military service chiefs had specific recommendations about the timeline, and he adjusted the implementation plan to incorporate those recommendations. Although Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford wasn’t present at the news conference, Carter said he and the military service chiefs support the final implementation timeline for transgender service.
Carter said he’s “100 percent confident” military leaders and the armed forces as a whole will be able to implement openly transgender service in a matter that preserves military readiness and values.
“I’m also confident that we have reason to be proud today of what this will mean for our military – because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s another step in ensuring that we continue to recruit and retain the most qualified people – and good people are the key to the best military in the world,” Carter concluded. “Our military, and the nation it defends, will be stronger.”