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U.S. Military Takes Baby Step Toward Allowing Transgender Soldiers

Feb 24, 2015

The new Secretary of Defense may be ushering in a new era of openness in the American military. Recent remarks made by Ashton Carter and the White House have raised the hopes of advocates that the nation's ban on openly transgender soldiers may be starting to crack.

Carter publicly reignited the issue Sunday during a town hall meeting with soldiers in Afghanistan. Asked about changing the longstanding policy, Carter replied: "I'm very open-minded about [it] 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."

On Monday, The White House sounded a note of support. "The President agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said when he was asked about Carter's response. "We here at the White House welcome the comments from the Secretary of Defense."

To critics of the ban, the prominent backing is a sign that the military may finally be ready to scrap one of its last gender-based prohibitions. But experts caution that the likelihood of an actual policy shift remains uncertain.

"I’m hopeful that this means that the regulations will be brought into line," says Joshua Block, an attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & AIDS Project. "But the ball is squarely in DOD’s court to move forward with this."

Transgender people are prevented from serving under Pentagon and military medical regulations barring people who have had a sex change operation and/or have "gender identity disorders." Advocates for transgender service say these policies, which date to the early 1960s, are out of touch with the current medical thinking. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic bible, replaced "gender identity disorder" with gender dysphoria, a recognition that transgender people do not suffer from a mental illness.

Indeed, though the army does not provide hormone therapy to transgender soldiers, it approved the treatment for Chelsea Manning, the former army private convicted of leaking national security secrets, after she sued the federal government for failing to provide the treatments.

There are no official statistics on the number of transgender people in the military. A 2014 report from the Palm Center, a research institute that aids sexual minorities in the military, estimated that there as many as 15,000 transgender troops currently serving.

As a practical matter, the transgender service policy would be relatively easy to change. It does not require an act of Congress or an executive order by the President, but could be changed by the Secretary of Defense. Experts said this process should follow a formal review soliciting military, medical and scientific expertise that could take a few months, and a requisite training period to follow.

Pentagon spokesman Nathan Christensen said "there is no specific review of the Department's transgender policy ongoing." But Christensen said officials did begin a routine review of the Department of Defense's medical policy earlier this month that will cover 26 systems of the human body, which would include—but is not specific to—the policy on transgender service. The review is expected to take up to 18 months.

This is not the first time the Obama Administration has expressed openness to changing the policy. In May of 2014, Carter's predecessor, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, told ABC News that he was "open" to a change in the policy. To advocates of ending the ban, the lack of concrete action following Hagel's remark is a reminder to keep their hopes in check.

"It's significant that this is the very first time that Secretary Carter has spoken publicly on this issue, it's significant that it was five days after he was sworn in, it's significant that the question came from the field from an actively serving naval officer. It's especially significant to have the White House chime in so enthusiastically," says Allyson Robinson, a veteran and advocate for transgender service. "But I don't have a lot of faith in the regular routine review process. We need a top-down intentional review of these particular regulations at the DOD and service level and the only way that happens is from an order from the Secretary of Defense."

Photos: 25 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox has used her growing celebrity as a star of the critically acclaimed Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, to become an outspoken leader of the trans rights movement, addressing crowds of thousands at schools and other forums around the country.Jason Merritt—Getty Images
Laverne Cox
Lana Wachowski
Kye Allums
Bruce Jenner Vanity Fair cover Caitlyn transgender
Chelsea Manning Transgender
Brandon Teena
The electronic musician Wendy Carlos, formerly Walter, released Switched-On Bach in 1968, which won three Grammy awards and became one of the first classical albums to sell 500,000 copies. She went on to compose notable scores for films like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron.
Since coming out publicly in a 2012 Rolling Stone article, the musician Laura Jane Grace has been a vocal advocate for trans acceptance. In 2014, her band Against Me! released the album Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
Carmen Carrera Transgender
Christine Jorgensen
Billy Tipton Transgender
The American public grew up knowing Bono as the daughter of entertainers Sonny and Cher, before he came out as a transgender man in 2009. Bono, who first came out as a lesbian in ’90s, has been an active LGBT rights advocate for decades, writing and making films about his experiences and using platforms like reality show Dancing With the Stars to talk about LGBT issues.
Candis Cayne
Lynn Conway
Caroline Cossey
Before she came out in 2014, the Serbian-born model was already blurring lines in the fashion world. As the androgynous male model and muse for big names like Marc Jacobs. In 2015, Pejic became the first transgender model to appear in American Vogue.
Lana Lawless Transgender
Fallon Fox
Beatie went public in 2008 as America’s first “pregnant father,” undergoing artificial insemination after his former wife proved infertile. The transgender man captured the nation’s attention after appearances on show’s such as Oprah, setting off cultural conversations about the social and legal status of transgender people in America. He has since had three children.
Janet Mock
Mike Penner
Renee Richards Transgender
Sylvia Rivera
Geena Rocero was already a successful model before she gave a viral 2014 TED talk in which she came out publicly as transgender. “All of us are put in boxes by our family, by our religion, by our society, our moment in history, even our own bodies,” she said. “Some people have the courage to break free.” Her advocacy organization, Gender Proud, works to empower transgender communities around the world.
Jenna Talackova
Laverne Cox has used her growing celebrity as a star of the critically acclaimed Netflix series, Orange is the New Black
... VIEW MORE

Jason Merritt—Getty Images
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