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Pentagon Says Transgender Troops Can Now Serve Openly

Defense Secretary Ash Carter announces new rules allowing transgender individuals to serve openly in the U.S. military, during a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Alex Brandon
Defense Secretary Ash Carter announces new rules allowing transgender individuals to serve openly in the U.S. military, during a news conference at the Pentagon on Thursday.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter says the military is lifting a ban on transgender service members.

"Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender," he told reporters today at the Pentagon.

The fundamental reason for the change, Carter said, is "that 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."

Researchers at RAND, he explained, estimate that "about 2,500 people out of approximately 825,000 reserve servicemembers are transgender, with the upper end of their range of estimates of around 7,000 in the active component and 4,000 in the reserves."

As NPR's David Greene said onMorning Edition before the policy change was announced, trans troops have been "caught in limbo." He noted that trans troops haven't been eligible for promotion and their colleagues were required to refer to them by their gender assigned at birth. People who transitioned before trying to enlist were considered unfit for service."

Before this change, trans troops had to seek medical care outside the military system and pay for it themselves.

Part of the reason for today's change is to provide "better guidance" for commanders about "how to handle questions such as deployment, medical treatment and other matters," Carter said.

He also called this "a matter of principle. Americans who want to serve and can meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete to do so."

Carter quoted Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley when he said this decision has its roots in upholding the Constitution:

"The United States Army is open to all Americans who meet the standard, regardless of who they are. Embedded within our Constitution is that very principle, that all Americans are free and equal. And we as an Army are sworn to protect and defend that very principle. And we are sworn to even die for that principle. So if we in uniform are willing to die for that principle, then we in uniform should be willing to live by that principle."

Last July, the military started studying the practical issues for making this change and develop a plan to implement it. Research carried out by RAND, Carter explained, found that allowing trans troops to serve openly would have "minimal readiness impacts" on the military.

The implementation of this decision will start immediately and take place over the next year. Carter laid out a timeline:

  • Immediately: "Starting today: Otherwise qualified servicemembers can no longer be involuntarily separated, discharged, or denied reenlistment or continuation of service just for being transgender."
  • In no more than 90 days: "The Department will complete and issue both a commanders' guidebook for leading currently-serving transgender servicemembers, and medical guidance to doctors for providing transition-related care if required to currently-serving transgender servicemembers. Our military treatment facilities will begin providing transgender servicemembers with all medically necessary care based on that medical guidance. Also starting on that date, servicemembers will be able to initiate the process to officially change their gender in our personnel management systems."
  • Over the following 9 months: "[B]ased on detailed guidance and training materials that will be prepared, the services will conduct training of the force – from commanders, to medical personnel, to the operating force and recruiters."
  • In no more than one year: "[T]he military services will begin accessing transgender individuals who meet all standards – holding them to the same physical and mental fitness standards as everyone else who wants to join the military."
  • "Today, we join in celebration with the thousands of brave transgender patriots who will now be able to serve our nation openly and with the deep respect they deserve," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement.

    He adds: "Ending this discriminatory policy not only brings long-overdue recognition to transgender service members, it also strengthens our military and our nation."

    NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke with Captain Jennifer Peace, who is transgender before the decision was released. She said it would determine her future in the military. Here's more from Peace:

    "Once the military makes this change, I don't think it will be any more difficult to be in the military than it would be out. And in some ways I think that allowing trans people to serve is going to make it so much for better for them in some ways than outside the military because you don't have to worry as much, now you're going to be federally protected from discrimination. You're going to be given access to health care – a lot of things that people on the outside still struggle with.

    "So there are challenges to being in the military, and with the ban there have been challenges to being trans in the military because of the policies that have been in place. But once those bans are lifted, I don't see any additional challenges of serving in the military than anywhere else."

    Listen to the full interview with Peace here:

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    Corrected: July 25, 2017 at 8:00 PM AKDT
    In an earlier version of this story, we mistakenly reported that Rand Corp. estimated that about 25,000 service members are transgender. The correct figure is 2,500.
    Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.