“I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them,” he said in response to a question that Jesse Ehrenfeld, a lieutenant commander with U.S. Navy Medical Care who is a member of the American Military Partner Association, asked during a town hall meeting in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Carter prefaced his response by saying that he approaches the issue of openly trans servicemembers from “a fundamental starting point.”
“It’s not something I’ve studied a lot since I became secretary of defense,” he said. “But I come at this kind of question from a fundamental starting point, which is that we want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country.”
“And I’m very open-minded about — otherwise about what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us,” added Carter. “That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members?”
Carter’s comments come less than a week after Vice President Biden swore him in to succeed Chuck Hagel.
Carter has tapped Eric Fanning, the gay former under secretary of the Air Force, as the Pentagon’s new chief of staff.
Fanning told the Washington Blade in a May 2013 interview that he supports allowing trans servicemembers to serve openly.
“I think that the military is stronger, institutions are stronger, and society is stronger the more inclusive that we are,” he said. “So, wherever we can root out discrimination, I think it’s a positive thing.”
Ehrenfeld told the Blade in a follow-up e-mail that he asked Carter the question because he has “personally taken care” of a trans servicemember and “interacted with several others” over the last six months he has been in Afghanistan.
“I am continually struck by how these individuals, who risk their lives every day to support our mission, live not in fear of the enemy, but rather in fear of being discovered for who they are,” Ehrenfeld told the Blade.
“I am hopeful that someday the outdated policy excluding transgender individuals from serving will be lifted. In my experience, transgender servicemembers are some of the bravest soldiers we’ve got.
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, welcomed Carter’s comments.
“Thousands of transgender service members are currently doing the job, and doing it well, but are forced to do so in silence — forced to lie about something as fundamental as who they are in order to continue to serve,” she said in a statement. “While we applaud Secretary Carter for being ‘open-minded’ on this issue, we urge him to take action that will lead to ending this ban that continues to harm our transgender service members and their families.”