Metro Weekly

Army increases authority level needed to discharge transgender troops

Secretary of the Army John McHugh - Credit:  Spc. John G. Martinez/U.S. Army

Secretary of the Army John McHugh – Credit: Spc. John G. Martinez/U.S. Army

The U.S. Army made it more difficult to discharge transgender servicemembers under a new policy announced Friday.

The authority needed to discharge a member of the Army who is transgender was elevated to the assistant secretary of the Army — the highest level that authority has ever been reserved. Previously, lower-level Army officers could discharge servicemembers who are transgender.

USA TODAY reported last month on the draft memorandum to change Army’s discharge process for transgender troops. Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen told Metro Weekly at the time that the Defense Department had launched a “routine, periodic review of the Department’s medical accession policy,” but it was not the review of transgender military service the Pentagon has been pushed to order.

“Today’s action by the Army helps over 6,000 transgender soldiers serving in silence. It also helps their commanders, who are increasingly stymied trying to apply 1970’s medical policy to today’s Army,” said Allyson Robinson, a former Army captain and director of policy for SPARTA, in a statement. “While transgender service members welcome this step, they recognize it is only a stopgap measure aimed at making a failing policy fail less. What they and their commanders need is a comprehensive, Department-level policy review.”

The move by the Army comes less than a month into Ashton Carter’s tenure as defense secretary. During remarks last month to troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Carter was asked his thoughts about transgender Americans serving in an “austere environment” like Kandahar and said he approaches the issue of transgender service from a fundamental starting point.

“It’s not something I’ve studied a lot since I became secretary of defense. But I come at this kind of question from a fundamental starting point, which is that we want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country,” Carter said. “And I’m very open-minded about — otherwise about what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us. That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members? And I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.”

One day later, the White House indicated President Barack Obama agrees with Carter’s remarks in what has been the administration’s most declarative statement on the issue to date.

The Army’s change in policy does not impact other branches of the military. Unlike “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s transgender 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. 

“With this step, Army Secretary McHugh adds his voice to that of Air Force Secretary James and other current and former military leaders signaling that the policy needs to be fixed,” Robinson added. “Secretary Carter has already indicated support for transgender service members; he needs to turn those words into action and order a top-down review to get to a policy that works for our military.”

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

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