Defense Department Lifts Ban on Openly 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,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced during a Thursday press briefing at the Pentagon.

Most policy changes will be implemented over the next year; within 90 days, the Department of Defense must complete and issue a guide to transition-related care. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Thursday lifted the ban prohibiting openly transgender individuals from serving in the military.

“Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced during a press briefing at the Pentagon. 

Although policy changes will occur over the next 12 months, Carter said, he stressed that “implementation will begin today.”

Carter last year called the ban “outdated” and pledged to start the process of allowing transgender people to serve openly in the U.S. military. As Rewire previously reported, “openly” is the key—research estimates that many transgender individuals already serve in the military, even though there are rules against it.

The initial review process included creating a working group to study the implications associated with the seismic policy shift. Advocates considered the review period necessary to evaluate medical and other issues that didn’t arise with the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed gay and lesbian individuals to serve openly in the military.

A Carter-commissioned report released in May estimated that about 2,450 out of 1.3 million active-duty service members are transgender, according to the New York Times. Every year, about 65 service members pursue gender transition, the Times reported.

In the next 90 days, the DOD must complete and issue “medical guidance to doctors for providing transition-related care, if required, to currently serving transgender service members,” Carter said.

“Our military treatment facilities will begin providing transgender service members with all medically necessary care based on that medical guidance,” he added.

More generally, active-duty transgender service members will soon have access to comparable military-provided medical care as their cisgender counterparts—without having to conceal their gender identity.

“Right now, most of our transgender service members must go outside the military medical system in order to obtain medical care that is judged by doctors to be necessary, and they have to pay for it out of their own pockets,” Carter said early in the briefing. “This is inconsistent with our promise to all our troops that we will take care of them and pay for necessary medical treatment.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs opened its first clinic last November specializing in the treatment of transgender veterans. As Rewire reported at the time, the clinic provides transgender veterans with primary care, hormone therapy, and mental health services.

National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling praised the DOD for putting an end to the “outdated and unscientific ban” in a statement provided to Rewire Thursday.

“Allowing anyone who is willing and able to serve to do so without lying about who they are is a sound policy that reflects American values,” Keisling said. “Like other institutions, including allied militaries, the Defense Department has found straightforward answers for all the questions that have come up. This is the right decision for the military and brings much needed certainty for thousands of currently serving soldiers who have put their lives on the line for their country, as well as for their units.”

Keisling expressed a remaining concern: an expected 18-month delay for individuals to join the military following their transition, which Carter outlined in his briefing today.

“This delay is substantially longer than individuals for comparable medical issues,” Keisling said. “We hope that this is a lingering piece of transgender exceptionalism that we expect will change as the military sees that it is simply an unnecessary barrier to getting the best talent.”