Lift the Transgender Military Ban Now

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Transgender people have always served in the the military, and are twice as likely to serve in the military than the general population.  Yet to this day they remain barred from serving openly. The current ban on transgender people is based on military medical codes, which remained unaffected by the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”–which was a legislative compromise reached in the 1990s that allowed lesbian, bisexual and gay individuals to serve as long as their sexuality wasn’t disclosed.

Advocates, including within the military, have been working tirelessly to remove the ban against transgender people and it seems this work is beginning to pay off. In an exclusive interview on May 11 that aired on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Defense of Secretary Chuck Hagel said he’s now ready to reconsider the ban on transgender people serving in the military. In fact, he went on to say, “I’m open to those assessments, because — again, I go back to the bottom line — every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it,” and furthermore that transgender issues are “an area that we’ve not defined enough.”

Hagel said his biggest concern is providing the medical support necessary to support transgender individuals, especially if they are stationed in what he called “austere locations.”

On May 16,  the White House appeared to signal support of Hagel’s comments. In statements made to Metro Weekly, White House Press Secretary Jim Carney said, “I would certainly point you to what Secretary Hagel said and we certainly support his efforts in this area.” These statements seem to show that there has been a dramatic shift in tone by the Pentagon and Obama administration on transgender military service. It seems the administration is headed in the right direction. Secretary Hagel and the administration’s statements are on the heels of a report released by a commission “to consider whether Pentagon policies that exclude transgender service members are based on medically sound reasons.” The Commission, convened by the Palm Center at San Francisco State University, included former US Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders and former Chief Health and Safety Director for the US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Alan Steinman, and its findings were recently published as the Report of the Transgender Military Service Commission.

The Task Force recently released a statement commending the Commission for stating independently what we all know: there is no compelling medical reason to exclude transgender people from serving their country if they choose, and if an individual decided to medically transitions that it would place almost no burden on the military. In August 2013 the Task Force also released a report “Still Serving in Silence: Transgender Service Members and Veterans in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” which provided data to help inform policy decisions on employment, housing, education, access to health care, and identity documents for transgender service members and veterans.

We believe that Secretary Hagel should immediately lift the transgender military service ban. Only by lifting the ban can we finish the job that the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell began.”

Here are six reasons why we recommend that President Obama issue an executive order to lift the transgender military ban:

  1. There is no documented medical reason for the U.S. armed forces to prohibit transgender Americans from serving
  2. The Department of Defense’s regulations designed to keep transgender people from joining or remaining in the military on the grounds of psychological and physical unfitness are based on outdated beliefs.
  3. The ban itself is expensive, damaging, and an unfair barrier to health access for approximately 15,145 transgender personnel who currently serve in active, Guard, and reserve components according to the Commission and an additional 130,000 veterans.
  4. Lifting the ban places no burden on the military. The Commission rejected the notion that providing hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgeries would be too difficult, disruptive, and expensive are inconsistent with modern medical practice and the scope of health care services routinely provide by non-transgender military personnel.
  5. At least a dozen nations, including Australia, Canada, England, and Israel, allow military service of transgender individuals.
  6. Retired Brigadier General Thomas A. Kolditz, former Army Commander and West Point professor on the Commission stated, “Allowing transgender people to serve openly would reduce gender-based harassment, assaults and suicides while enhancing national security.”

The Palm Center Report concludes with policy recommendations that would improve care for U.S. service members without burdening the military’s pursuit of its vital missions:

  • Lift the ban on transgender military service.
  • Do not write new medical regulations or policies to address health care needs of transgender personnel, and instead, treat transgender service members in accordance with established medical practices and standards.
  • Base new administrative guidance on foreign military and U.S. government precedents.

Transgender Americans are serving in the U.S. military. Currently there are over 15,145 transgender personnel who serve in active, Guard, and reserve components of the military. Additionally, there are already civilian transgender employees that work for the Department of Defense. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey(NTDS) report released in 2011, 20% of all respondents said they are or had been a member of the armed forces, and 30% of all respondents who identified as transgender women  said they are or had been a member of the armed forces.   According to the American Community Survey for 2011, the same year as the NTDS report, 10% of the non-transgender U.S. population had served in the military.

The transgender service member ban serves no purpose. Instead of discriminating against those who risk their lives to protect the government’s armed forces, we urge Secretary Hagel to lift the ban immediately,  telling the world that the U.S. proudly respects its soldiers—regardless of gender identity.

Co-authored by Kylar W. Broadus, Senior Policy Counsel and Director of the Trans Civil Rights Project and Arielle P. Schwartz, Holley Law Fellow, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force