Metro Weekly

Air Force secretary expects review of military’s transgender ban

Deborah Lee James - Credit: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill

Deborah Lee James – Photo: U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill

The military’s longstanding ban on open transgender service is likely to face review within the next year, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in an interview with USA Today published Wednesday.

“I think that is likely to come under review in the next year or so. I think we should standby and times change and we’ll just have to see what happens there,” she said. 

Although James stopped short of endorsing repeal of the transgender ban, 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.”

James’s remarks come as LGBT-rights advocates have called on outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to order a review of the military’s transgender ban before leaving office. 

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.

Hagel is to be replaced by Ashton Carter, who formerly served as deputy secretary of Defense. Upon his nomination by President Barack Obama last week, 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.”

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Although Earnest said his understanding was that a review was ongoing at the Pentagon, he added, “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know a whole lot about this review.” Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen confirmed to Metro Weekly following Earnest’s remarks that no review has yet been ordered.

Despite the ongoing delay, James’s remarks were welcomed by advocates Wednesday who have waited months for Pentagon action since Hagel’s endorsement of a review this past summer. 

“Air Force Secretary James’s comments today are a positive step, but President Obama is the Commander-in-Chief and is ultimately responsible for setting policy, and it is imperative for him to clarify his position as well,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, which has issued a series of reports on transgender service.

One of those reports, released 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.

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.

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

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