It was certainly cause for celebration when President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen certified congressional legislation to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) and the discriminatory policy was terminated on September 20, 2011. However, the termination of the policy applied only to gay, lesbian and bisexual service people.
Transgender people and intersex people are still banned from serving in the Unites States military, not by law but by military policy. Both groups of people are deemed unfit for military service not for any demonstrable deficiency in their ability to serve but solely because of their respective gender identities, which are pathologized by the military as disorders.
There is now, however, reason for optimism that this discriminatory policy may eventually change—at least with respect to transgender people. New Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently said in reference to transgender people, “I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them,” although he also referred to transgender people’s “proclivities,” which may reflect the erroneous view that being transgender is a lifestyle choice.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also stated that “The president agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve.” Of course, both statements beg the question of whether or not the Defense Secretary will with the support of the White House take the necessary steps to change the military’s discriminatory policy. It is important to note that the Department of Defense has full authority over military policies governing “suitability for service.”
Support is building to end gender discrimination in the military, at least with respect to transgender people. In March of last year, the Palm Center, a research group with a focus on gender, sexuality and the military, issued the report of its Transgender Military Commission, which was co-chaired by former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and retired Rear Admiral Alan M. Steinman, MD. The commission found that “there is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service.” In August the Palm Center issued an additional Commission report on transgender military service, which was accompanied by a supporting statement from three retired U.S. military generals. The generals stated that “allowing transgender personnel to serve openly is administratively feasible and will not be burdensome or complicated. . . . Our new report shows that implementation could proceed immediately and will be successful in its execution.”
Transgender people do in fact serve in the U.S. military. The Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, which specializes in research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, estimates “that approximately 15,500 transgender individuals are serving on active duty or in the Guard or Reserve forces.” They also estimate that there are “134,300 transgender individuals who are veterans or are retired from Guard or Reserve service.”
The Department of Defense needs to end gender discrimination in the military now. In doing so, the DOD would allow transgender and intersex people to serve their country openly with dignity and respect along with the rest of the brave people in our military who risk their lives every day to defend freedom and equality for all Americans.