The top civilian leader of the Air Force has indicated she personally supports allowing transgender people to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces and expects a review of the issue to take place soon.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, confirmed by the U.S. Senate last year, said in an interview with USA Today she sees no reason why capable troops shouldn’t be able to serve when asked about transgender people in the U.S. military.
“From my point of view, anyone who is capable of accomplishing the job should be able to serve, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t come under review,” James said.
James predicted the issue would come under review in the near future in response to another question on her views.
“I think that is likely to come under review in the next year or so,” Lee said. “So, I think we should stand by and times change, and we’ll just have to see what happens there.”
Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. armed forces, the Pentagon has said transgender unable to serve because of medical regulation under DOD Instruction 6130.03.
An estimated 15,500 transgender people are serving in silence in the military because of policy barring them from being open about their gender identity, according to a May report from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the comments from James are “further proof” the ban on transgender service is on its way out.
“Ending this senseless discrimination – as many of our closest allies have already done – is something that our military can do,” Thompson said. “What has been lacking to date is the will to do so. It is time for President Obama and the leadership of the Defense Department – both civilian and uniformed – to take the necessary steps to ensure that this ban will be lifted, so that all of those who are capable of accomplishing the job will have an opportunity to serve.”
James isn’t the first senior official at the Air Force to back the idea of openly transgender service. In a May 2013 interview with the Washington Blade, Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning, who’s gay, endorsed the idea of allowing transgender people to serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Other officials who come out in favor of openly transgender military service are House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Reps. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.). Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) has said the Pentagon should review its ban.
Even though he’s touted the success of allowing openly gay person to serve in the armed forces after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, President Obama has yet to publicly articulate a position on transgender service.
The notion the Pentagon would consider the idea of openly transgender service isn’t new. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in May during an interview with ABC News the policy “continually should be reviewed.”
But since that time, the White House and the Pentagon have been sending mixed messages on the situation. The White House has talked about an “ongoing review” on transgender service, but the Pentagon has insisted no review has been ordered. Hagel made his last comments on the issue shortly after the ABC News interview, saying he’s ordered no task force, but “would want to hear more from individuals who are close to this issue.”
A senior Pentagon official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Blade on Wednesday there’s no evidence to support the idea that a review will happen soon because no one is pushing for it. In fact, the official said momentum slowed after Hagel made his comments and the lead needs to come from the White House.
The idea that more initiative needs to come from the White House was echoed by Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, who called on Obama to take action.
“Air Force Secretary James’s comments today are a positive step, but President Obama is the Commander-in-Chief and is ultimately responsible for setting policy, and it is imperative for him to clarify his position as well,” Belkin said.