Chuck Hagel is facing renewed calls to order a review of the military’s longstanding ban on transgender service following the announcement he will step down as secretary of defense.
On Monday, President Barack Obama announced at the White House that Hagel would resign as defense secretary after nearly two years in the post. According to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, Obama and Hagel arrived together at the decision that Hagel should resign after concluding a different defense secretary might be better suited to meet current challenges. He will stay on as defense secretary until his successor is nominated by Obama and confirmed by the Senate.
A former senator from Nebraska critical of the Iraq war, Hagel is the only Republican member of Obama’s national security team and, as a Vietnam veteran, is the first former enlisted combat soldier to serve as defense secretary.
Although reports indicate Hagel was pressured to step down as Obama’s national security team has struggled to address threats such as ISIS, his departure puts into question progress made in recent months to end the ban on transgender Americans serving openly in the military.
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.
Such statements illustrated a dramatic shift in tone by the Pentagon and Obama administration on transgender military service, but more than six months later, there has been no official action. Following news of Hagel’s resignation, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen told Metro Weekly no review of the military’s transgender ban has yet been ordered.
“Secretary Hagel’s leadership has been critical to the steady progress LGBT service members and their families have experienced during his tenure, and we commend him for living up to his belief that ‘Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have the opportunity to serve,’” stated Allyson Robinson, a former Army captain and director of policy for the LGBT military group SPARTA. “In his remaining days in office, we call upon him to uphold those values by initiating a review of the Department of Defense’s obsolete policies that bar fully qualified transgender Americans from serving. Mr. Secretary, six months ago you promised 15,000 transgender service members and their families a review would happen. We expect you to keep your promise to them.”
Fred Sainz, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Hagel’s departure should have no impact on the awaited review. “It should proceed with all due haste and nothing should slow it down,” Sainz said.
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.
An independent report released in August, authored by a nine-member commission consisting of three retired U.S. military generals and convened by the Palm Center, found the Pentagon could immediately open the armed services to transgender Americans in a way that is consistent with military readiness and core values.
Robinson also noted that more than three years after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” military nondiscrimination protections have not been updated to include sexual orientation. “It’s past time for the Pentagon to bring itself in line with nearly every other federal agency and protect its lesbian, gay, and bisexual troops from discrimination,” said Robinson.
Although Hagel faced skepticism from the LGBT community during his confirmation process in 2013 for his record as a senator, he soon earned their trust. He became the first secretary of defense to attend a Pentagon Pride event in June 2013, implemented the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and sought to ensure states blocking requests for benefits by members of the National Guard with a same-sex spouse followed federal policy.
Hagel has been an “important ally and transformational leader on issues of equality with the Department of Defense,” stated Ashley Broadway, president of the American Military Partner Association. “While there is certainly still a tremendous amount of work to be done for full LGBT equality in the military, Secretary Hagel’s leadership has made a profound impact on the lives of the families of our nation’s LGBT service members.”
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