U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has announced that the Department of Defense, and all branches of the military, will repeal the current policy banning transgender service members from serving openly. Under that policy, transgender people are often discharged for medical reasons relating to gender dysphoria.
“The Defense Department and the military need to avail ourselves of all talent possible in order to remain what we are now, the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” Carter said. “Our mission is to defend this country. And we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications preventing us from recruiting or retaining soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.”
Although the military’s Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was officially repealed in 2011, thereby allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual service members to serve openly, the same courtesy was not extended to transgender service members. Although numerous officials within the Obama administration, including current Army Secretary Eric Fanning, had expressed support for lifting the ban on transgender soldiers, it has been a cumbersome process to remove that prohibition.
Friday’s repeal comes after years of advocacy by LGBT service members and organizations, who argued that the ban is discriminatory and eliminates good people who wish to serve their country. Last July, after years of wrangling, the Pentagon, under the direction of Carter, commissioned a study by the RAND Corporation to study the effects of lifting the ban. Among the topics covered by that study were the effect on military readiness, the effect on morale, and the cost of outfitting various facilities to accommodate transgender soldiers. At that time, Carter also formed a working group, operating under the presumption that repealing the ban on transgender service would not have an adverse effect, to develop a strategy for providing implementing the new policy.
The RAND report estimates that there are about 2,500 out of 1.3 million active-duty service members who identify as transgender, and about 1,500 out of 825,00 reserve service members. But the report also acknowledges that those numbers could be as high as 7,000 active-duty members and 4,000 reserve members, respectively.
“Although relatively few in number, we’re talking about talented and trained Americans who are serving their country with honor and distinction,” Carter said. “We invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to train and develop each individual, and we want to take the opportunity to retain people whose talent we’ve invested in, and have proved themselves.”
Carter repeatedly stressed that the decision to pursue lifting the ban on out transgender service members was part of a “thoughtful and deliberate” process. In addition to consulting RAND, the working group also talked to outside experts, including those in the medical field, and transgender service members. The working group also looked at the experiences of 18 other countries whose militaries allow transgender people to serve, including U.S. allies like Great Britain, Israel and Australia, as well as how private-sector corporations have addressed transgender issues, when deciding on a course of action.
RAND’s analysis found there would be “minimal readiness impacts” from allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military. Additionally, the company found that health care costs for transgender people would constitute “an exceedingly small proportion of the Department of Defense’s health expenditures. Those findings align with a report published last year by the American Medical Association saying there was no medical reason to exclude transgender people from serving in the military. It also conforms with findings from another study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimating that the cost of transition-related care for transgender military personnel would be “negligible” and would amount to “little more than a rounding error in the military’s $47.8 billion health care budget.”
“Effective immediately, transgender Americans can serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just because they are transgender,” Carter said.
As part of its implementation plan, the Department of Defense will have a 90-day window in which to create and issue guidance to unit commanders on how to deal with transgender-related issues. Once the 90-day window is past, service members will also be able to start the process of changing their gender, name, and other identifying information in their personnel files.
“The reality is that we have transgender service members serving in uniform today,” Carter said. “I have a responsibility to them and their commanders to provide them both with clear and more consistent guidelines than is provided by current policies. We owe commanders better guidance on how to handle questions such as deployment, medical treatment, and other matters.”
During that same time period, the Pentagon will provide medical advice on transition-related care to doctors serving military service members, and will direct military treatment facilities to provide any and all treatments designated as medically necessary for transgender service members. Under current police, active transgender service members often have to obtain treatment for gender dysphoria at non-military medical facilities, and pay for all costs out of pocket.
For the nine months following the issuance of guidance until June 30 of next year, the Department of Defense will develop guidance and other materials needed to train all military personnel on the nature of the Pentagon’s new policy regarding transgender service. Such trainings, and the time during which they will be carried out, will mimic the training timeline that was enacted following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Once the training portion is completed, the military will then begin accessing transgender individuals interested in serving who meet all of the requisite physical and mental fitness standards to serve in the military — with some extra provisions. First, transgender recruits must have completed any treatment deemed medically necessary for their transition before enlisting. They also must be “stable in their identified gender,” as confirmed by their doctor, for a period of at least 18 months before beginning their service.
“I want to close by emphasizing that deliberate and thoughtful implementation will be key,” Carter said. “I and the senior leaders of the Department will therefore be ensuring that all issues identified in this study are addressed in implementation. I’m confident they can and will be. … I’m 100 percent confident in the ability of our military leaders and all our men and women in uniform to implement these changes in a manner that both protects the readiness of the force and also upholds values cherished by the military: honor, trust, and judging every individual on their merits.”