Transgender People Can Now Enlist In The Armed Services—So What Happens Next?

Following the good news, the real hard work must begin

Image courtesy of Getty Images

The United States military has finally announced that trans people can fight for their country just like everyone else.


Well, it’s almost “Huzzah!” time. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced Thursday the new policy will be implemented over the next 12 months. The first step will be providing support for current commanders and their trans subordinates, with military-wide training coming after. The big move for now is, starting Thursday, a person can no longer be, “involuntarily separated from the services solely on the basis of being transgender,” as the Washington Post reports.

Last July, Carter issued a statement about the United States military’s regressive policy regarding its trans members, saying:

“The Defense Department's current regulations regarding transgender service members are outdated and are causing uncertainty that distracts commanders from our core missions. At a time when our troops have learned from experience that the most important qualification for service members should be whether they're able and willing to do their job, our officers and enlisted personnel are faced with certain rules that tell them the opposite. Moreover, we have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines - real, patriotic Americans - who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that's contrary to our value of service and individual merit.”

In the statement, Carter also announced the creation of a working group that will study the issue. The group will “start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified.”

This trans inclusion initiative is the latest in a string of progressive moves over the past few years of the Obama administration. Following the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the extension of benefits to same-sex married couples, the promotion of an openly gay man to the position of Army Secretary and the White House hiring its first opening trans employee last year, allowing trans people to serve in the military is another logical step toward institutional acceptance of the queer community within government branches.

As Carter said Thursday, “Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who can best accomplish the mission,” adding, “We have to have access to 100 percent of America’s population for our all-volunteer forces to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified—and to retain them.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]There needs to be a strong statement of support from Secretary Carter on down that, regardless of how people feel about each other, they will have to work together.[/quote]

Military Times ran an article Thursday outlining some crucial issues to be aware of during the transition time. In regard to recruitment, trans people hoping to enlist will have to wait 18 months after a doctor certifies they are stable in their gender before they are able to join. In regard to uniforms, grooming and fitness, the new policy will have to amend its physical performance standards for transitioning soldiers and address new housing placements for active trans service members.

And as far as medical intervention goes, commanders have traditionally had some discretion in determining when their soldiers can receive treatment for some issues, provided it is not an emergency situation (e.g. minor procedures or surgeries may be delayed until after deployment). The new policy will need to address when trans members of the service can seek civilian medical assistance, and when they will be required to work with military doctors, considering the necessity of some specialty treatments like hormone therapy.

And then there’s the matter of top-down implementation of new directives. Leadership needs to firmly assert a unified front of advocacy and sensitivity during the change over. Transgender advocate Aaron Belkin, who works with the Palm Center, told Military Times, “There needs to be a strong statement of support from Secretary Carter on down that, regardless of how people feel about each other, they will have to work together. And all service members should be treated with dignity and respect, and anything else will not be tolerated.”

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