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Pentagon allows transgender troops to serve openly under new policy

"Trans rights are human rights."
Jeff Schogol Avatar

The Pentagon has unveiled a new policy about how transgender people can join and serve in the military, reversing restrictions put in place during President Donald Trump’s administration.

“This is a really extraordinary and long-awaited day for transgender service members, and for all of the transgender kids out there who want to have a chance to serve in our nation’s military,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian rights.

In January, President Joe Biden signed two executive orders that ended the Defense Department’s ban on transgender people with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from joining the military unless they had not begun medical treatments to transition to a new gender and had been declared medically stable for the past 36 months.

Now the Defense Department has updated two instructions on medical standards for military service and other matters that affect transgender service members, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a news conference on Wednesday.

“The revised policies in these instructions restore the department’s original 2016 policies regarding transgender service,” Kirby told reporters. “Specifically, they prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or an individual’s identification as transgender. They provide a means by which to access into the military in one’s self-identified gender, provided all appropriate standards are met. They provide a path for those in service for medical treatment, gender transition, and recognition in one’s self-identified gender. And, they seek to protect the privacy of all service members and to treat them with dignity and respect at all times.”

The new policy will take effect in 30 days, Kirby said. Until then, the military’s interim guidance issued following Biden’s executive orders will remain in effect.

That interim guidance prohibited any adverse personnel actions from being taken against transgender service members under the Trump policy and ordered a review of any transgender service members who were involuntarily separated or denied reenlistment due to their gender identity, he said.

“Trans rights are human rights, and on this  #TransDayOfVisibility , I’m pleased to announce we’ve updated DoD policy on the open service of transgender individuals,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tweeted on Wednesday. “The update reinforces our prior decision to allow recruitment, retention, and care of qualified trans individuals.”

Currently, about 2,200 service members have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria, said Stephanie Miller, director of military accession policy. The Mayo Clinic defines gender dysphoria as “the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth or sex-related physical characteristics.” 

Even though Trump claimed it would be too expensive to provide medical care for transgender service members, Miller said the medical costs are actually quite small, amounting to “handful of a million dollars per year” out of the billions of dollars in the Defense Department’s health budget.

“I think it’s important to emphasize that all medically necessary care – to include gender transition surgery – will be available under these new policies,” Miller said at Wednesday’s briefing.

Once the new policy is implemented, it will mark the last phase in repealing the transgender ban, which began as a tweet by Trump that became official policy.

In July 2017, Trump tweeted that transgender individuals would not be allowed to “serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” claiming the medical costs for transgender service members would be an unfair burden on the Defense Department.

The White House made the transgender ban official in March 2018 and the Defense Department implemented the policy in April 2019.

Around that time, defense officials claimed that the policy was not a ban on transgender individuals because most of the roughly 9,000 transgender service members then serving in the military would be allowed to remain.

Wednesday’s announcement by the Pentagon is the first step toward making the military more inclusive, according to Out in National Security, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, and transgender national security professionals.

“The administration has made clear that it’s not a matter of simply going back to status quo ante, but that building back better means wholly incorporating transgender service members and then celebrating their service,” the group said in a statement. “It also means securing their rights in settled law.”

Featured image: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Pride month at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. (Photo by Photo by Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi.)