The US Department of Defense announced on Wednesday the debut of new policies designed to facilitate the inclusion of transgender service members in the US armed forces. The change comes nearly four years after former US President Donald Trump banned trans people from service.
“Trans rights are human rights, and on this #TransDayOfVisibility, I’m pleased to announce we’ve updated DoD policy on the open service of transgender individuals,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tweeted on Wednesday, referring to the March 31 holiday created by trans people to celebrate and affirm their identities. “The update reinforces our prior decision to allow recruitment, retention, and care of qualified trans individuals.”
When the changes go into effect on April 30, the military will begin providing service members with medical support and a path for transitioning while continuing to serve as well as for changing their gender marker on documents. The new policy also bans officials from denying someone reenlistment or involuntarily discharging them from service on the basis of their gender identity.
"These policies are based on the conclusion that open service by transgender persons who are subject to the same high standards and procedures as other Service members with regard to medical fitness for duty, physical fitness, uniform and grooming standards, deployability, and retention is consistent with military service and readiness," the document states.
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, hailed the move as making the US military "more ready, more cohesive, and more equal."
"President Biden and the Pentagon have moved swiftly and certainly to undo the discriminatory and unjust transgender military ban put in place by the former President," Ellis said in a statement on Twitter. "This is a great day for America's service members, who deserve a commander-in-chief who understands the service and sacrifice that come with putting on the uniform of the United States military."
For decades, all LGBTQ people were banned from serving in the US military and discovery once in the service was grounds for immediate discharge. In 1994, then-US President Bill Clinton directed the services to implement a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, meaning they stopped asking applicants about their sexual orientation, but service members could still be discharged if discovered to be LGBTQ.
In 2011, then-President Barack Obama repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but trans people continued to be banned until a separate order in 2016 first allowed them to serve under certain strict limitations, including not being allowed to transition in the service. However, after Donald Trump took office the following year, he ordered that measure revoked, and while the new ban was initially halted by a court order, it eventually took effect in April 2019.
Trump’s revocation accompanied a wide-ranging effort across three government departments - Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services - to totally erase trans people from all official language and legally define them as their birth-assigned sex. When the US Supreme Court ruled in June 2020 that LGBTQ people are protected by laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sex, the Trump administration refused to enforce the change in law and until his final days in office implemented new bans on trans people’s equal access to facilities.
In the days after US President Joe Biden took office, he issued a sweeping set of executive orders that reversed many of Trump’s policies, including those that discriminated against LGBTQ people. That included directions to the Pentagon and other relevant agencies to draw up plans for undoing the trans military ban, and the new policy unveiled on Wednesday goes much further toward including trans people than had even existed before Trump’s tenure. He also nominated the first trans candidate to a presidentially-appointed post: Undersecretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, who was confirmed by the Senate earlier this month.
Twenty other nations also allow trans people to openly serve in their militaries; most are US allies, but other nations include Cuba, Bolivia, and Brazil.