Metro Weekly

As Hagel’s departure nears, no review ordered of military’s transgender ban

Chuck Hagel - Credit: Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/Pentagon

Chuck Hagel – Photo: Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/Pentagon

The latest comments from outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the military’s ban on transgender service have spurred renewed calls for Hagel to act on a review of the ban before leaving office. During an interview with Stars and Stripes and Military Times, Hagel declined to say whether he thought the ban on transgender service should be lifted, but added he is confident the issue will be dealt with fairly.

“This institution has been on the cutting edge of social change in this country since World War II,” Hagel said, noting how the military has dealt with policy changes on racial integration, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“I have confidence in the process and the system [and believe] that the transgender issue will be dealt with in a fair way,” he said. According to Stars and Stripes, Hagel said he believes the military needs to respect the desires of individuals to serve, but not make any changes that would jeopardize mission preparedness.

Despite that confidence, Hagel and the Pentagon have been slow to act on ordering a review of the ban since Hagel first expressed support for one in May, more than eight months ago. On Friday, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen confirmed to Metro Weekly that a review still has not yet been ordered.

“That process Secretary Hagel is referring to starts with him, and that’s what we’re lacking right now: leadership from the Secretary of Defense,” stated Allyson Robinson, a former Army captain and director of policy for the LGBT military group SPARTA. “Just last month Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James added her voice to those of military leaders across the force and a growing number of retired general officers calling for change. They know the current policy is an archaic, illogical, and unethical mess that’s confusing commanders and hurting the troops, and they’re asking their boss for help.”

“There’s just no earthly reason why this is taking so long,” added Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign. “There’s no question that all Americans honor military preparedness but that shouldn’t be used as smoke screen to keep brave transgender Americans from serving their country openly. The U.S. military has in fact brought about tremendous social change. For that proud tradition to continue, a formal review needs to be launched immediately and the process completed expeditiously.”

Hagel told Martha Raddatz of ABC News in an interview that aired May 11 that the military’s transgender ban should be “continually reviewed” and stated he is open to such a review. “I go back to the bottom line — every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it,” he said. “This is an area that we’ve not defined enough.” During a flight en route to Saudi Arabia a few days later, Hagel expanded upon his remarks, stating that the Pentagon should continue to evaluate the ban. “I’ve not asked for a specific task force,” he said. “I’ve not asked for a specific study. I would want to hear more from individuals who are close to this issue, know this issue, who I would value their judgment and their direction on.” On May 16, the White House signaled their support for such a review. “I would certainly point you to what Secretary Hagel said and we certainly support his efforts in this area,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in response to questions from Metro Weekly.

Since then, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has said the ban on open transgender service is likely to face review within the next year. In a December interview with USA Today, James stopped short of endorsing repeal of the transgender ban, but when asked whether she believes there is a military readiness reason why transgender people should not be allowed to serve, James responded, “From my point of view, anyone who is capable of accomplishing the job should be able to serve, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this comes under review.”

Hagel is to be replaced by Ashton Carter, who formerly served as deputy secretary of Defense, following confirmation by the Senate, which could come as early as next month. Upon his nomination by President Barack Obama in December, White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters he “wouldn’t anticipate that any ongoing reviews would face a dramatic change as a result of the new leadership in that building.” 

The White House declined to comment for this story on whether the president is satisfied with the pace at which Hagel has moved on the issue.

According to Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, which has issued a series of reports on transgender service, research shows the policy change will not be difficult to implement. One report, released by the Palm Center in August and authored by a nine-member commission consisting of three retired U.S. military generals, found the Pentagon could immediately open the armed services to transgender Americans in a way that is consistent with military readiness and core values.

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“But you have to get going now. The last thing you want to do is slow-roll a multi-year review process,” said Belkin. “I worry that’s been a pattern at the Pentagon, not just on this issue but on many different issues. Sometimes they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing.”

While gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans have been able to serve openly since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) in September 2011, with no negative consequence, a medical regulatory ban still prohibits transgender military service. Unlike DADT, the ban is not a federal statute and the ability to lift it lies not with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, but leaders at the Pentagon. An estimated 15,500 transgender personnel currently serve in the armed forces. 

“The repeal of DADT did not jeopardize the mission, and neither will the inclusion and support of our transgender bothers and sisters,” said Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association. “For the sake of our military families, this should be dealt with, and it should be dealt with now.” 

Although Hagel may still order the review before departing the Pentagon, it will fall to his successor to approve and implement changes to military regulations. And should Hagel not act before his departure, Robinson says they are prepared to make the case to Ashton Carter.

“[T]he only workable way forward is a comprehensive, Department level review, and that takes an order from the Secretary,” Robinson said. “We’re already working to ensure Dr. Carter has the resources he needs to give that order as soon as possible upon confirmation.”

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Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.