It’s Time to End the Ban on Transgender Military Service

By Lawrence J. Korb and Maureen Smolskis

During a visit with service members in Afghanistan earlier this year, newly installed Secretary of Defense Aston Carter announced he is “very open-minded” about allowing transgender people to serve in the U.S. military. Carter’s speech suggests the military is open to reconsidering its discriminatory ban on transgender military personnel. But we cannot afford to wait.

The ban on transgender military personnel is out of date, has no medical or military basis, and undermines readiness by adding unnecessary stress to the lives of the estimated 15,500 transgender people who currently serve in the U.S military.

Put simply, eligibility to serve should be evaluated on a nondiscriminatory, case-by-case basis. More than 134,300 transgender military personnel have served over the past 30 years, proving that transgender people can and will continue to be excellent service members.

Studies show that there is no medical reason to prohibit transgender people from serving, as long as they can meet the physical and mental qualifications required of all U.S. service members. Many of the medical treatments that some transgender service members may choose to receive are routinely given to non-transgender personnel. For example, hormonal treatments and surgeries are allowed for military personnel as long as there are no serious side effects that might prevent them from carrying out their military responsibilities.

Opponents of lifting the ban claim that allowing transgender people to serve will decrease readiness and harm the overall mission of the U.S. military – the same arguments presented before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As the successful end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” demonstrates, claims of eroding readiness ring hollow. In fact, ending the ban could enhance readiness by allowing transgender personnel to be open and honest about who they are, lifting a major burden.

In reality, allowing transgender people to serve openly will allow them to work without fear of being discharged. It will enable commanders and subordinates to talk with transgender personnel about their situations and allow for institutional policies to guide those service members who may have questions about serving with transgender people.

U.S. allies including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Denmark, Spain, and Sweden allow transgender personnel to serve and have not seen any decrease in readiness. These countries hold transgender personnel to the same physical and psychological readiness standards as non-transgender personnel. Transgender individuals from Canada and the United Kingdom have completed combat tours in Afghanistan.

Following Secretary Carter’s statements, the Army eased restrictions on transgender personnel -requiring the decision for discharge to come from the service’s top civilian for personnel matters, rather than from a mid-level officer. While this is an important first step away from hasty discharges, the change does not actually end the ban on transgender Army personnel, nor does it address the concerns of transgender people in the other services.

All that is needed to lift this ban immediately is an Executive Order. Transgender people face an enormous amount of discrimination broadly in the U.S. The military’s discriminatory ban reinforces negative stereotypes and sends a cruel, incorrect, and dangerous message that being transgender makes one in some way “unfit.”

The Obama administration was quick to support Secretary Carter’s comments, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest stating, “The President agrees with the sentiment that all Americans that are qualified to serve should be able to serve.” It’s time for Secretary Carter and President Obama to turn their words into action by developing a concrete plan that lifts the ban on transgender military personnel now.

Lawrence J. Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Maureen Smolskis is an intern at the Center.


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