White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday he doesn’t know if President Obama will seek to overturn the ban on openly transgender military service before the end of his administration.
Earnest made the remarks more than five months after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the policy should be reviewed and the White House said it backs such an effort. However, since that time, no apparent movement on the issue has taken place and a Defense Department official confirmed to the Blade that a review is not underway.
In response to a question from the Washington Blade about whether this potential review has come up in conservations between Obama and Hagel, Earnest referred to a meeting that took place at the White House the same day.
But Earnest professed to have no knowledge as to whether transgender service was a topic of that discussion, which took place as the administration works to combat Ebola and the Islamic State of Syria & Iraq.
“I don’t know if it was on the agenda for the meeting,” Earnest said. “But I would refer you to the Department of Defense, who should be able to give you an update in terms of the status of that report and when you can expect it to be finalized.”
Although he has never publicly made an explicit comment about transgender military service, Obama has frequently referenced the success of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal under his administration — especially during his 2012 re-election campaign — which enabled openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people to serve in the armed forces.
Pressed by the Blade on why Obama would take the lead on implementing openly gay service, but not do the same for transgender people, Earnest spoke broadly about his boss’ commitment to equality, saying that applies to the armed forces.
“I do think that the president’s commitment to equality is one that he has articulated many times,” Earnest said. “He also believes that commitment to equality makes our country stronger and he believes it makes our armed forces stronger. So his commitment to that principle is unwavering, but as it relates to how it is implemented in the armed forces, that’s the subject of ongoing review and I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for a status update on that.”
Asked by the Blade whether Obama would make the call for openly transgender service before the end of his administration, Earnest said he’s unsure.
“I don’t know the answer to that, Chris,” Earnest said. “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”
Notably, even though the Blade queried Earnest three successive times about an issue related to transgender rights, the White House spokesperson never uttered the word “transgender” in his remarks. As Buzzfeed recently reported, no White House official has ever publicly said the word “transgender,” although Obama himself has said the word on several occasions.
The medical regulation that prohibits openly transgender people from serving in the armed forces is under DOD Instruction 6130.03 and was put in place before 1980. It states that disqualifying conditions for military service include change of sex and a “current or history of psychosexual conditions (302) including but not limited to transexualism…exhibitionism, transvestitism, voyeurism and other paraphilias.”
Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the current policy “outdated and discriminatory” and urged Hagel to move forward with a review.
“Secretary Hagel was right to say that they should be reviewed,” Thompson said. “It’s now time to dig down and actually move forward with such a review. Ensuring that this discriminatory barrier is removed is a priority for the ACLU.”
Throughout his responses, Earnest made several references to a review at the Pentagon, at one point referring to it as “ongoing,” but that wasn’t same characterization of its status at the Defense Department.
Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said immediately after the White House briefing that no review has started on openly transgender service, despite declarations from the White House and Hagel on moving forward.
“I didn’t listen to the WH Press briefing, but I can confirm for you that no review of the Department’s policy on transgender has been ordered, and that the Department of Defense has not changed its policy prohibiting military service by transgendered individuals,” Christensen said.
On Monday, a forum hosted by the ACLU and the San Francisco-based Palm Center is set to take place in D.C. featuring transgender service members from around the globe. Among the speakers are Landon Wilson, a former sailor who was booted from the U.S Navy for being transgender, and retired Navy SEAL Senior Chief Kristin Beck, who transitioned after she left the military.
According to a May report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, an estimated 15,500 transgender people are serving in silence in the military under a policy that bars them from being open about their gender identity.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications at the Human Rights Campaign, urged both the White House and the Pentagon to pick up its pace in moving toward a policy of openly transgender service in the military.
“This president has shown time and time again that he’s committed to full LGBT equality,” Sainz said. “We urge the White House and Pentagon to move expeditiously to allow transgender patriots to serve openly and honestly in our nation’s military much like they do in militaries around the world.”