February 5, 2021 at 6:39 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
DOD: Transgender enlistments able to happen now under Biden policy
John Kirby, Pentagon spokesperson, said transgender enlistment can happen now in the armed forces. (Screen capture via CSPAN)

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby gave assurances Friday the U.S. military is currently allowing transgender people to enlist in the military service as a result of an executive order President Biden signed reversing Trump’s transgender military ban.

Kirby, responding to questions from the Washington Blade during a Friday news conference, also said the forthcoming process would include developing plans to integrate transition-related care in the military health system and give the military service chiefs input without allowing them overriding the process.

When the Blade posed a question on when the Pentagon will get to full implementation of transgender military service, Kirby said in terms of enlistments “that issue is solved” and transgender civilians can enlist now.

“If you can meet all the other requirements, physical fitness and your academics, and all the other requirements to enlist in a branch of the armed forces, transgender identity will not be a bar,” Kirby said. “So today, somebody can walk in and join.”

Asked by the Blade whether a diagnosis of gender dysphoria (acknowledging the question may be splitting hairs) would be bar to service, Kirby said, “No.”

The Blade initially sought clarity on the statement regarding transgender service from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who transgender people would be allowed to “enter and serve in their self-identified gender” and “ensure all medically-necessary transition related care authorized by law” would be available.

The statement from Austin, who previously said he supported Biden’s plan to undo former President Trump’s transgender military ban, left many observers with the impression transgender enlistment and integrating transition-related care and surgeries weren’t immediately available now, but might come down the road, without offering any definitive timeline.

Kirby, however, disputed Austin’s statement lacked clarity, saying it was “pretty clear” as it pertains to enlistments.

“If an individual meets all the other fitness and academic requirements to join the military, your transgender identity will not be bar, so it was pretty clear in there that recruitment and accessions will continue,” Kirby said.

With respect to the military health system providing for transition-related care, Kirby also said Austin’s statement address the issue.

“He also talked about reversing the decision by the previous administration about not providing associated and appropriate medical assistance and care for those undergoing transition,” Kirby said.

Kirby added, however, what remains is the review process of 60 days Biden gave the Defense Department (as well as the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard) in his executive order “to come back to him with more specific implementation guidelines,” comparing to the process that led the Obama administration to begin the process of open service before Trump’s ban.

“This has been started, as you know in 2016 and then more abruptly stopped in, I think, 2018,” Kirby said. “So, a lot of that muscle memory that has been in place in 2016 was going was gone and we wanted to give the department a couple of months to get it back, and that’s what’s going on right now, and I’m sure that once we get that and we’ve been able to solidify the recommendations going forward, you will see us put out what the specific implementation on all the aspects of transgender service are.”

Biden’s executive order also provides for “consultation with the Joint Chiefs” as part of the review process. Asked by the Blade what weight they would have in the process, Kirby said, “The Joint Chiefs are also service chiefs.”

“They have significant Title X responsibilities to recruit, to retain, to train, to equip — and that’s required b law,” Kirby added. “They are the service providers to the combatant commanders, so they have a very large vote and a voice — with the service secretaries, of course — in how these polices will be implemented going forward. Again, we’re on our way here, and I think in a couple of months we’ll be ale to provide more detail.”

Challenged by the Blade on his use of the “vote,” which implies the service chiefs would be override aspect of transgender military service, Kirby indicated they wouldn’t be able to block anything and cautioned not to “read too much” into that word.

“What I meant was they have a voice in the policy-making process,” Kirby said. “They are integral. The service secretaries and the service chiefs to implementing and executing the policies that the secretary was now ordered and that will happen. We will consult with them as we move forward, and they will provide their best advice about to how to move forward.”

As previously reported by the Blade, input from the service chiefs on transgender service could be an issue because at two — Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger — went on the record about hesitancy, if not opposition, to transgender service during their Senate confirmation hearings.

Kirby, however, expressed frustration with the questioning, saying the idea the service chiefs would seek to resist the implementation of transgender service is false.

“I think you may be getting at this idea that they’re going to somehow resist, or are in not favor of, or will find a way to block or stonewall implementation, and that’s just not going to happen,” Kirby said. “That’s just not going to happen.”

At the top of the briefing, Kirby announced Austin held his first meeting with the service chiefs at the Pentagon in the room colloquially known as “The Tank.” Kirby, however, declined to comment on whether the issue of transgender service came up, citing a policy of no comment on the discussions between the secretary and the service chiefs.

Kirby said the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness is charged with leading the 60-day review. However, the position appears currently unfilled in the time after the Biden transition. The Blade has placed a followed-up in with the Pentagon on who is serving in that role.

Sheri Swokowski, a Wisconsin-based advocate for transgender military service and former U.S. Army colonel, told the Blade in response to Kirby’s remarks the Pentagon would have significant work to do in ensuring transgender service members have access to care even if it reverts back to the 2016 policy.

“After almost five years, the DOD healthcare system for transgender service members remains broken, particularly for those who require gender reassignment surgery to treat gender dysphoria,” Swokowski said. “What should be a straightforward, administrative action to obtain a funding source waiver, has delayed medically necessary care for months, and in some cases years. Wait times would have been even longer, had Congressional intervention not been requested by 79 percent of service members scheduled for surgery.”

Swokowski added an increasing number of service members have avoided the DOD process and incurred five-figure costs “in order to meet unit mission requirements and individual health care needs.”

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

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