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The U.S. Navy has granted a waiver allowing a transgender service member to serve “in their preferred gender” for the first time since the Trump administration’s restrictions on transgender service went into effect last year.
Under current policy, transgender people can serve in the military, but only if they meet the physical standards of their assigned sex at birth, have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and do not attempt to undergo a gender transition while serving.
Some long-serving transgender military members who transitioned prior to the current policy have since been allowed to remain in the Armed Forces, but any new recruits, or those who have not yet undergone gender confirmation surgery, must ask for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Defense.
“The acting Secretary of the Navy has approved a specific request for exemption related to military service by transgender persons and persons with gender dysphoria,” Navy spokeswoman Lt. Brittany Stephens told CNN.
Stephens added that the service member had requested a waiver to “serve in their preferred gender, to include obtaining a gender marker change in [the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System] and being allowed to adhere to standards associated with their preferred gender, such as uniforms and grooming.”
Lawyers for the sailor issued statements recognizing the significance of the waiver for their client.
“The ban has been in place for over a year and this is the first waiver to be granted,” Jennifer Levi, the director of the Transgender Rights Project at GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders, said in a statement. “While we are relieved that our client, a highly qualified Naval officer, will be able to continue her service, there are other equally qualified transgender service members who have sought waivers and are still in limbo, despite being perfectly fit to serve.”
“There is no basis for treating transgender service members differently by requiring them to seek a waiver that no one else has to obtain in order to continue to serve,” Shannon Minter, the legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement. “While we are relieved for our client, requiring transgender service members to jump through this discriminatory hoop makes no sense and only underscores the irrationality of the ban. Being transgender has nothing to do with a person’s fitness to serve, and transgender individuals should be held to the same standards as other service members.”
The Trump administration policy took effect last year, reversing the 2016 decision by the Obama administration to lift any restrictions preventing transgender individuals from serving.
In 2017, President Trump announced his intention to bar all transgender individuals from serving, alleging that their presence and the accommodations they’d require would hamper military readiness. But the policy was subsequently altered to allow some transgender individuals to serve — so long as they effectively remained closeted by remaining in their assigned sex at birth.
Since then, multiple lawsuits — including one brought by MMAA and Lambda Legal — have been waged on behalf of several transgender military members and prospective enlistees, who claim that the prohibition on transgender service, except in rare cases where a waiver is granted, violates transgender people’s constitutional rights.
The Modern Military Association of America, the nation’s largest LGBTQ military and veteran nonprofit organization, celebrated the development even as they continued to criticize the Trump administration’s policy.
“The Navy’s decision to approve a waiver to the Trump-Pence transgender military ban is an important victory for this sailor, even if we suspect the administration may be nefariously planning to misuse it to undermine our lawsuit challenging the ban,” Peter Perkowski, the legal and policy director of the Modern Military Association of America, said in a statement.
“We will be watching closely to see if others are approved and how the Trump-Pence administration may attempt to weaponize the decision by falsely claiming the ban isn’t a ban,” added Perkowski. “MMAA is committed to ensuring the unconscionable Trump-Pence transgender military ban is overturned and any qualified transgender patriot is free to serve openly and authentically.”
“Over the past year, we’ve continued to hear from qualified transgender patriots who want to serve their country but can’t because of the Trump-Pence transgender military ban,” Perkowski continued. “As our nation faces unprecedented challenges, the last thing our military should be doing is rejecting qualified individuals who want to serve simply because of their gender identity.”
According to Gallup, 71% of Americans believe that transgender people should be allowed to serve openly in the military. A recent survey by the University of California at Los Angeles found that a similarly strong majority, or two-thirds, of active-duty service members also support allowing transgender individuals to serve.
“We are ecstatic both for the Sailor and the breach of the waiver logjam,” Emma Shinn, the president of SPART*A, a transgender military advocacy organization, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that this is the first of many; but the fight is far from over.”
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