In the days after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the Pentagon will no longer bar openly transgender people from serving in the armed forces, transgender advocates who pushed for the change over the course of many years are breathing a sigh of relief.
Sheri Swokowski, a Madison, Wis.-based transgender veteran who served as an infantry soldier for nearly 34 years before she transitioned after retirement, said she was “elated” to hear the news.
“I’m elated particularly for the service members who are serving and those who are going to serve in the future because they will be able to serve authentically,” Swokowski said. “I know from my own personal experience if I were able to be authentic, I wonder how much better an officer and NCO I could have been. So it’s a big weight lifted off their shoulders.”
Last year, Swokowski held a silent protest over the ban at the Pentagon’s annual Pride celebration by attending the event wearing a female Army Service Uniform and an infantry gold-crossed rifle insignia consistent with her gender identity.
Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. armed forces, transgender people until last week were still prohibited from serving in the armed forces as a result of a medical regulation instituted before 1983.
On Thursday, Carter announced during a news conference at the Pentagon he would lift the ban on transgender service “effective immediately” following a lengthy review of the policy he initiated in July 2015.
“As a result of this year-long study, I’m announcing today that we are ending the ban on transgender Americans in the United States military,” Carter said. “Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.”
Transgender people currently serving in the military can now be open about their gender identity as a result of Carter’s actions. Starting Oct. 1, services will be required to offer transition-related care to transgender service members in accordance with their gender identity and they may change their gender markers in the Defense Department’s electronic benefits system. On July 1, 2017, openly transgender people will be able to enter the armed forces — provided they verify they have “been stable in their identified gender for 18 months” and completed their transition.
Carter during the news conference announcing the change cited a figure from the RAND Corp. estimating about 2,500 people out of 1.3 million active-duty service members are transgender and about 1,500 out of 825,000 members of the Reserve.
The Pentagon’s decision to lift the ban on transgender military service alters the immediate trajectory for advocates who have been highlighting the issue.
On July 13, the San Francisco-based Palm Center, a think-tank on sexual minorities in the military, is set to host in D.C. a symposium on transgender military service, which will follow up on a similar event the Palm Center held with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2014.
The Palm Center announced the symposium last month well before Carter announced the ban on transgender military service would be lifted with the intent of drawing a spotlight to the harm caused by the ban.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said the focus will remain on research, demonstrating transgender inclusion in the armed forces works just the same as integrating gay people after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“It’s about research showing that inclusive policy strengthens the military and also about research showing that the resistance to the inclusion of transgender troops looks a lot like resistance to the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the old DADT days,” Belkin said.
A feature documentary in the works called “TransMilitary” on transgender people serving in the U.S. military was also intended to draw attention to the ban, but now will have a different effect.
Fiona Dawson, the D.C.-based director of “TransMilitary,” said, “we now finally know the film’s ending, but our work to distribute ‘TransMilitary’ is more relevant than ever.”
The documentary, Dawson said, has three objectives: making Americans familiar with who transgender people are; complimenting the work fighting anti-LGBT legislation; and ensuring a historic moment in the LGBTQ movement isn’t forgotten. Although Dawson has yet to obtain a distribution agreement for the film, she aims to release it by the end of this year.
“We can update all the policy we want, but without moving hearts and shifting minds we can’t realize the cultural change — in the military and society — we strive to achieve,” Dawson said.
The end to the transgender military ban was personally significant to one military couple — Logan Ireland and Laila Ireland — who are both transgender. They married on May 17.
Logan Ireland, a staff sergeant in the Air Force who works in security forces, said his reaction upon learning about the end to the trans ban was that it has “been a long time coming.”
“I’ve been seen as a male within the DOD since March and I’ve been serving without an issue,” Logan Ireland said. “My team is very supportive, my peers are very supportive, so finally the DOD is recognizing the rest of us and it’s humbling and it’s an honor to be serving at this time and to see this sort of change happening.”
Laila Ireland, who served in the Army before being medically retired in December for a reason unrelated to her gender identity, said the change means transgender troops will “have more pride in who they are and the volunteer service to our country.”
“Trans people have lagged far behind lesbian, gay and bisexual people in terms of acceptance,” Laila Ireland said. “As a newly separated veteran from the military, the change in policy allows men and women like me to be able to breathe a whole lot easier. Our service, our job performances, they don’t change. They stay the same.”