New Defense Dept. Policy Unveiled to Allow Transgender Service Members

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Defense Secretary Ashton Carter introduced today a new policy allowing transgender individuals to serve openly in the military -- stipulating that a person wanting to join the military has been "stable" in their new gender for at least a year and a half.

Carter told reporters at the Pentagon that his decision, which began with a review process a year ago to "study practical issues related to serving openly" along with a policy implementation plan, was driven by concerns about the future of the force, the current force and "matters of principle."

As with his decision to open combat roles to qualified women, the Defense chief said the department needs "to avail ourselves of all talent possible...we don't want barriers unrelated to a person's quality to serve."

"We have to have access to 100 percent of America's population... to recruit among them most highly qualified," he said.

RAND Corp. helped the DoD with the study and estimated there are 2,500 transgender service members currently on active duty and 1,500 in the reserves. Carter said "outside expert groups" and medical experts outside the department participated in the review, and allied militaries that allow transgender service members to serve openly were also consulted to see "how they dealt with this issue." At least 18 countries fall into that category, including the UK, Israel and Australia.

"Although relatively few in number, we're talking about talented and trained Americans," he added, stressing the military wanted "to retain people whose talent we've invested in and proven themselves."

Carter said he recognized that commanders would need clearer and more consistent guidance on issues ranging from deployment to medical treatment. Currently most transgender service members go outside the military medical system and pay out of pocket, he said. "This is inconsistent with our promise to all our troops that we will take care of them and pay for medical treatment."

Carter said he met with some transgender service members during the review process, and found they felt valued by peers and commanders "in most cases," while some felt frustrated by a "lack of clear guidelines" for commanders. "One service member I had met with described how some people had urged him to leave the military, because of the challenges he was facing with our policies, and he said he just wouldn't quit. He was too committed to the mission, and this is where he wanted to be. These are the kind of people we want serving in our military."

"They don't want special treatment -- they want to be held to the same standards and be treated like everyone else," he said.

After weighing medical, legal and policy considerations, the secretary said he was "proud of the thoughtful and deliberate manner with which department leadership has conducted this review."

"Gender identity of an otherwise qualified individual will not bar them from military service or for many accession programs," Carter declared. "In taking the steps, we are eliminating policies that can result in transgender members being treated differently from their peers based solely upon their gender identity rather than upon their ability to serve."

In the year ahead, military members from the operations level to recruiters will receive training on the new transgender policy. Within 90 days, the department will issue a guidebook for commanders.

Existing service members deemed to be transgender by their doctors will be able to fully transition through the military healthcare system. Asked if that includes hormone therapy or complete gender reassignment surgery, Carter said that will depend on what doctors determine is "medically necessary."

He said RAND concluded this would account for "an exceedingly small proportion of DOD's overall healthcare expenditures."

After legally transitioning to a new gender, then a service member would wear the corresponding uniforms, use the corresponding housing and have to meet that gender's fitness standards. That goes into effect a year from now.

Any transgender person hoping to joint the military would have to "have completed any medical treatment that their doctor has determined as necessary in connection with their gender transition and to have been stable in their identified gender for 18 months, as certified by their doctor, before they can enter the military."

Carter said that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Jospeh Dunford, who did not appear with the Defense secretary at the unveiling, wanted a longer timeline than he originally proposed, and that's reflected in the final policy.

Senior military officials told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the process was moving too quickly, though there generally was not opposition among these officials to lifting the ban.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), though, panned the policy as "the latest example of the Pentagon and the president prioritizing politics over policy."

"Our military readiness -- and hence, our national security -- is dependent on our troops being medically ready and deployable. The administration seems unwilling or unable to assure the Congress and the American people that transgender individuals will meet these individual readiness requirements at a time when our Armed Forces are deployed around the world," Thornberry said.

"Over the next few weeks, we are going to continue to push for actual answers to the readiness questions we’ve been asking for nearly a year to which we have still not received a response. We will also be looking at legislative options to address the readiness issues associated with this new policy."

When Thornberry's comments were posed to Carter, the Defense chief said he and the chairman were actually on the same page about readiness.

"That was a key part of our study, and will be a key part of our implementation," Carter said. "And the chairman and other members of the committee and I -- committees and -- I've actually heard a variety of opinions on this, some urging us to move even faster than we have moved, and some wanting -- and this is very legitimate -- to understand what the effects on readiness and so forth are."

"But we have some principles here, we have a necessity here. And we're going to act upon that. We're going to do it in a deliberate, and thoughtful and step-by-step manner. But it's important that we do it."

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Service Committee’s Personnel Subcommittee, congratulated Carter for "ending this outdated and discriminatory policy."

“Service members who are willing to die for our country deserve to be allowed to live and serve openly and the only thing that should matter is an individual’s ability to serve," Gillibrand said.