March 6, 2015 at 6:03 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Army raises discharge authority for transgender troops

transgender, service members, gay news, Washington Blade

The Army raised the authority to discharge transgender troops. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Nearly two weeks after affirmative comments from the Obama administration on the inclusion of transgender people in the U.S. military, the U.S. Army on Friday announced it would raise the discharge authority for expelling soldiers based on their gender identity.

In a redacted, undated memo made public on Friday, the service announced the initiated separation of soldiers who are transgender must be forwarded to a senior civilian official, the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, who’ll then make a decision on expulsion with service headquarters. According to the memo, the guidance will expire in 12 months or earlier if a superseding message is published.

Allyson Robinson, a transgender advocate and director of the LGBT military group SPARTA, praised the Army upon news it would raise the authority for discharging soldiers based on their gender identity.

“Today’s action by the Army helps over 6,000 transgender soldiers serving in silence. It also helps their commanders, who are increasingly stymied trying to apply 1970’s medical policy to today’s Army,” Robinson said. “While transgender service members welcome this step, they recognize it is only a stopgap measure aimed at making a failing policy fail less. What they and their commanders need is a comprehensive, Department-level policy review.”

The document is consistent with a report from USA Today last month on an earlier version of the message, which at the time suggested the Army was considering the change. At the time, the Army refused to comment on veracity of the document.

Although repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military, transgender people are still precluded from service because of medical regulation. The policy is regulatory, not law, so the Obama administration could institute a change at any time on its own volition.

During a military town hall in Kandahar last month, newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expressed an openness to the idea of openly transgender service, saying only “suitability for service” should bar soldiers for enlistment. One day later, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told the Washington Blade that President Obama agrees with the sentiment and welcomes the comments.

“With this step, Army Secretary McHugh adds his voice to that of Air Force Secretary James and other current and former military leaders signaling that the policy needs to be fixed,” Robinson said. “Secretary Carter has already indicated support for transgender service members; he needs to turn those words into action and order a top-down review to get to a policy that works for our military.”

It wasn’t immediately known whether other services would follow suit with the Army to raise the discharge authority for transgender troops. Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said didn’t immediately have any more information on the Army policy other than to say no review of the military’s ban on transgender service is ongoing.

Aaron Belkin, an advocate of transgender service and director of the San Francisco-based Palm Center, said the move from the Army is a good first step, but more action is needed.

“This is a welcome step toward inclusive policy, but transgender troops must still live a lie,” Belkin said. “Although Army discharges now require the approval of a senior civilian official, transgender personnel are prohibited from serving, and all eyes are on the Secretary of Defense, awaiting his order to review the ban.”

The Army’s policy of elevating the discharge authority for transgender troops is similar to guidance initiated by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in effect and prohibited openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

On March 25, 2010, the Pentagon raised the level of the officer authorized to initiate an inquiry or separation for a gay service member to a general or flag officer in the service member’s chain of command. On Oct. 21, 2010, the Pentagon made further changes, announcing discharges would necessitate the approval of the service branch secretary after consultation with the defense department general counsel and the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed by Congress in December of that year and lifted by President Obama in 2011, ending the need for regulations on separations under the law.

The Pentagon doesn’t keep track of how many service members are discharged under the ban on transgender service. A report last year from the University of California, Los Angeles, estimated that 15,500 transgender people are currently serving in the armed forces.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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