Daniel Sitterly, principal deputy assistant Air Force secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, said in a statement the policy change takes place even though the ban on openly transgender service in the U.S. military remains in effect.
“Though the Air Force policy regarding involuntary separation of gender dysphoric airmen has not changed, the elevation of decision authority to the director, Air Force Review Boards Agency, ensures the ability to consistently apply the existing policy,” Sitterly said.
According to the statement, if command recommends involuntary separation of an enlisted airman for gender dysphoria or for another reason and the enlisted airman has self-identified as transgender, separation action will be reviewed by the Secretary of the Air Force Personnel Council for recommendation, then to the Air Force Review Boards Agency director for a decision.
Neither gender dysphoria nor self-identification as transgender is an automatic circumstance that generates involuntary separation, the Air Force statement says. A recommendation for discharge because of gender dysphoria must be supported by a report of evaluation by a psychiatrist or Ph.D.-level clinical psychologist, the statement says.
Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military, but transgender people are still barred from service because of medical regulation. DOD Instruction 6130.03 calls for separation of service members who undergo gender reassignment or have “psychosexual conditions” that include transvestitism or transsexualism.
In March, the Army implemented a similar policy, raising the discharge authority for transgender soldiers to the assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs, who’ll then make a decision on expulsion with service headquarters. That guidance was set to expire in 12 months or earlier if a superseding message is published.
But by saying being transgender isn’t a circumstance that would automatically trigger a separation, the Air Force seems to be going further than the Army, which made no such assertion in its announcement.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesperson, said the service’s policy remains the same when asked if the Army would go as far as the Air Force on transgender separations.
“The bottom line is that the Army’s (DoD) policy on transgender individuals serving in the military hasn’t changed, the Army remains committed to ensuring all Soldiers are treated respectfully and in accordance with law and regulations,” Garrett said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James indicated support for transgender military service in December during an interview with USA Today, saying “anyone who is capable of accomplishing the job should be able to serve” and the ban on transgender service is likely to come up for review.
The policy change is announced on the same day the New York Times editorial board published an op-ed that highlights the story of two transgender U.S. service members calling for openly transgender service in the U.S. military.
Allyson Robinson, director of policy for the LGBT military group SPARTA, said the policy change “is a significant step” for the estimated 15,500 transgender troops serving in the armed forces.
“However, we need a consistent solution across all the services,” Robinson added. “The New York Times highlighted what SPARTA has said for many months: there is a patchwork of solutions out there, with local commanders struggling to reconcile unclear guidance with their responsibility to retain good people. Secretary Carter needs to take the lead and align the services around an updated policy that allows our military to get and keep the best and the brightest.”
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, also commended the Air Force for the policy change, but said more action is needed.
“This is a huge step in the right direction for our transgender airmen and their families, but they are still threatened by outdated regulations preventing them from serving openly and honestly,” Broadway-Mack said. “We need Secretary Carter to order a comprehensive review of these outdated regulations. Transgender service members sacrifice so much for our nation, and they should be able to serve openly, honestly, and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. A service member’s gender identity has nothing to do with the ability to get the job done.”
The remaining military department that hasn’t responded to calls for openly transgender service is the Department of the Navy, which has jurisdiction over both the Navy and the Marine Corps.
Cmdr. Christopher Servello, a Navy spokesperson, said “no changes are in the works” for raising the discharge authority to expel sailors and Marines for their gender identity.
One option for the Pentagon is to raise the discharge authority for transgender troops across the board in a Defense Department-wide policy.
Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said he had nothing to offer when asked if this potential policy was under consideration.