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President Joe Biden has made good on his promise to end the Pentagon’s ban on certain transgender individuals joining the military.

Biden issued an executive order on Monday that reverses the Defense Department’s transgender policy, which had prevented people with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from becoming enlisted service members or officers unless they had been medically stable for 36 months and had not begun medical treatments to transition to a new gender.

“President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” the White House said in a statement. “This question of how to enable all qualified Americans to serve in the military is easily answered by recognizing our core values.” 

“America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive. The military is no exception. Allowing all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform is better for the military and better for the country because an inclusive force is a more effective force. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do and is in our national interest.”

During his Jan. 19 confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that he supported Biden’s intention to overturn the transgender ban.

“I truly believe, senator, that – as I said in my opening statement — that if you’re a fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve,” Austin said.

In anticipation of Biden’s announcement, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, and transgender service members issued a statement on Monday praising the president’s executive order.

“Reversing this ban is a victory for all Americans,” Air Force Lt. Col. Bree Fram, vice president of Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All, said in the statement. “President Biden has given the gift of opportunity to thousands of individuals who will use it to serve the country they love.”

Ending the transgender ban also enhances national security by allowing qualified transgender people to serve in the military, said Jennifer Dane, executive director of the Modern Military Association of America and Air Force veteran.

Biden’s executive order is a reminder that “our strongest assets are not bombs or jets, but those who serve,” said retired Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King, who deployed to Afghanistan three times before beginning her transition from male to female in November 2015.

“The transgender community has been told once again that we can serve the nation we love, we can be heroes, and that we belong everywhere that life is lived,” King said in a statement. “We have been shown once again that unique perspectives, combined with shared ideals makes us stronger.”

“Today serves as a reminder that the ignorance of bigotry and hatred of the previous administration has no place in America,” she continued. “So, let this be our line in the sand. Let us as a people never be pushed backwards again. For once you have felt the light of the sun on your face the darkness of the closet will never be acceptable.”

Monday brought to an end a long struggle for transgender service members that began on July 26, 2017, when former President Donald Trump tweeted transgender individuals would not be allowed to “serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”

Ostensibly, Trump cited “the tremendous medical costs and disruption” as his reasons for barring transgender people from joining the military. Trump followed up with an Aug. 25, 2017 memorandum banning any transgender people from being recruited into the military.

Trump’s first tweets about banning transgender individuals from military service created chaos in the Pentagon because he had not consulted with then-Defense Secretary James Mattis first, retired Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, a speechwriter for Mattis, later wrote in his book Holding The Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.

“We were less than a week after the meeting in the Pentagon, and President Trump had just U-turned a major defense department policy,” Snodgrass wrote. “Via Twitter. We hadn’t even received the courtesy of a heads-up from the White House.”

Afterward, Mattis wrote a Feb. 22, 2018 memo to Trump recommending that transgender service members be allowed to continue to serve if they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria before the president announced a ban on recruiting transgender individuals.

Mattis also recommended that “transgender persons who require or have undergone gender transition are disqualified from military service.”

The White House then announced on March 23, 2018, that anyone “with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria—those who may require substantial medical treatment, including through medical drugs or surgery” would be banned from joining the military.

Opponents to the ban tried to stop its implementation by filing lawsuits, but the courts decided in the government’s favor. On March 12, 2019, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist approved the U.S. military’s transgender policy, which took effect the following month.

Before it took effect, defense officials tried to persuade reporters that the Pentagon’s transgender policy was not a ban because about 9,000 service members with either a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or who had identified as transgender would be allowed to continue to serve in the military.

But Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian rights, said the Pentagon’s transgender policy was actually “a categorical ban with a small exemption for a few hundred people who had already come out.”

“They tried at some point to make some convoluted argument that it wasn’t a transgender ban: You could be transgender; you just had to live in your birth sex – which is absurd,” Minter said on Monday. “That’s like saying: You can be gay; you just have to be in a straight relationship.”

Feature image: Photo illustration of retired Army Staff Sgt Patricia King.

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