White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday the Obama administration has no position on ending the U.S. military’s ban on transgender service — an apparent reversal of a previously stated position in support of discontinuing the policy.
Earnest’s remarks were succinct in response to an op-ed published Thursday by the New York Times editorial board titled “Let Transgender Troops Serve Openly,” In response to a question from Fox News about whether the White House has a position on the issue, Earnest replied, “We don’t.”
When the Washington Blade asked to follow up, Earnest closed down further discussion on the topic, saying “Not right now, Chris.”
By saying the White House has no position on the issue, Earnest appears to be walking back comments he made in February, when he echoed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s openness to the idea of open transgender service. At the time, Earnest said Obama “agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve.”
UPDATE: White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said in a follow-up email to the Blade the Obama administration’s position on transgender service hasn’t changed.
“We did see the New York Times Editorial, but as Josh mentioned, we don’t have any new position on the military’s policy on this to offer today,” Schultz said. “Generally speaking, the President certainly agrees with the sentiment that all who are qualified to serve should be able to serve – but you should check with the Department of Defense for specific details on how they operationalize their policies.”
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 addition to calling for an end to the ban on transgender military service, the New York Times editorial board quotes two U.S. service members — Staff Sgt. Loeri Harrison and Senior Airman Logan Ireland — who could face a discharge because of their gender identity.
“While some, like Senior Airman Ireland, are thriving, others, including Sergeant Harrison, fear that their careers could unravel at any moment,” the op-ed states. “That is an inexcusable way to treat Americans who want to serve their country.”
Sue Fulton, president of the LGBT military group SPARTA, said she remains confident the White House’s previously stated position still holds of supporting a change in the military’s trans ban.
“We remain confident that the White House supports DoD in moving forward to update their 30-year-old policies on trans service,” Fulton said. “This is within the Secretary of Defense’s authority, and he has indicated a willingness to do so. As we’ve said before: we expect Secretary Carter follow through on his commitment to the troops; he should announce an expedited review, and a moratorium on transgender discharges until the review is complete.”
The issue of transgender military service is gaining prominence. On Wednesday, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee on the first day of his presidential campaign joined Democratic candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders in calling for an end to the ban. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has yet to comment explicitly on the issue.
At at upcoming Pentagon Pride event on Monday, Sheri Swokowski, a transgender infantry veteran, said she plans to wear a female Army uniform with an infantry insignia to take a silent protest against the U.S. military’s continued ban on transgender service.
Earnest’s comment that the White House has no position on transgender military service comes just two days after he said the public transition of athlete and TV personality Caitlyn Jenner shows “tremendous courage” and is “worthy of our respect.”