“I truly believe … that if you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve,” Austin told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing.
The order provides immediate protection for all transgender service members. It stops all involuntary separations or discharges based on gender identity, and directs the secretary of Defense and the secretary of Homeland Security, who oversees the Coast Guard, to implement the order and brief the president within 60 days on their progress.
The executive order also requires officials to find the records of any troops who were kicked out of the military because of their gender identity, and correct their military records, meaning dishonorable discharges could be switched to honorable.
“Simply put, transgender servicemembers will no longer be subject to the possibility of discharge or separation on the basis of gender identity [and] transgender servicemembers can serve in their gender when transition is complete,” according to a White House fact sheet on the order. “Transgender servicemembers should know that they are accepted throughout the U.S. military.”
One top military leader quickly praised the change for eliminating “an unnecessary barrier” for those who want to serve.
“Simply put, all Sailors and applicants for accession to the Navy must be treated with dignity and respect,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said. “This policy change is the right thing to do and is another step in ensuring that we continue to recruit and retain the best and most qualified people.”
Biden’s move also won praise from top Democrats on Capitol Hill, who have been pushing to overturn the restrictive transgender troop policy in recent years. Since retaking the House majority, Democrats have voted several times to roll back Trump’s transgender troop ban, though no legislation ever advanced in a Republican-controlled Senate.
“Individuals who are willing to put on the uniform of our country and risk their lives to defend our freedoms should be received with commendation, not prejudice,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a critic of the ban who pressed Austin on the issue at his confirmation hearing. “I’m proud that our armed services will once again embrace the principle that anyone who can meet military standards should be allowed to serve, regardless of gender identity.”
While lawmakers celebrated the repeal, some advocates warned Congress must enact laws to ensure a ban isn’t reinstated by a future administration. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, promised to push for such a provision in defense legislation.
“We must make sure that future presidents do not backslide on our values of equality and inclusion, and I intend to add a provision to this year’s defense policy bill to secure a permanent policy of nondiscrimination for our armed forces,” Speier said in a statement.
Advocacy groups also applauded the decision on Monday. Emma Shinn, president of the Modern Military Association of America’s transgender advocacy arm, said Biden’s restoration of open service policy “closes a dark chapter of history.”
“I am elated that the approximately 15,000 transgender service members proudly serving across the globe can rest easier knowing that their service to our nation is seen, valued and that they can continue to serve as their authentic selves,” she said.
Transgender personnel began serving openly in the military on July 1, 2017, under an order from the Obama administration. But Trump reimposed the ban just a few weeks later via Twitter.
“The United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” he tweeted on July 26. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”
The series of tweets drew outrage from LGBTQ advocates and Democrats, and also set off a scramble in the Pentagon, which was caught off guard by the announcement. Former defense officials managed to slow down implementation of the new policy. Trump wanted the ban to take effect in February 2018, but then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordered further study of the policy, which had already been extensively evaluated, and it did not go into effect until April 2019.
Trump’s ban also sparked four lawsuits that have been working through the court system since August 2017. The plaintiff in one, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, said he is “relieved and appreciative” for Biden’s executive order.
“In promptly rescinding the trans military ban, President Joe Biden made it a priority to correct our course and set us back on a heading for progress,” Navy sailor Brock Stone said in a statement. “I joined the Navy in 2006 to serve my country, and my idea of patriotism includes speaking up for myself and anyone else who’s being held down. … The Biden administration’s actions affirm that I and other transgender service members belong in our military, our country, and our society.”
Trump’s ban prohibited transgender service members from serving in their identified gender and ordered the discharge of anyone diagnosed with gender dysphoria — severe anxiety some transgender people feel when their bodies don’t align with their gender — while in uniform. The Obama policy also required transgender service members to serve with their biological sex, but included an exception for individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria to transition.
Under Trump’s order, would-be recruits could not join the military if they had transitioned. The Obama-era plan would accept recruits who had transitioned as civilians, as long as they had been physically and mentally stable for 18 months after the transition.
The concern from the panel of experts commissioned by Trump to look into the matter was that the treatment for gender dysphoria is highly individualized and not well-settled among medical experts, said one defense official who departed with the Trump administration, adding that the Pentagon was “assuming a lot of risk.” In addition, the rate of suicide is “exceptionally high,” in some cases 50-60 percent higher, for people with gender dysphoria, even after treatment.
But a 2014 report from the Transgender Military Service Commission found that “there is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender service.”
That report also estimated that more than 15,000 transgender people were in the military. A more recent study from RAND in 2016 said 1,320 to 6,630 transgender troops were on active duty, but noted it can be difficult to estimate because of the bans and a lack of data. Only a fraction of those will seek medical treatment to transition.
Advocates for transgender service members had laid out a plan to undo the ban in 30 days. The proposal, developed by the Palm Center, says the Pentagon still has operations in place allowing transgender troops to serve openly with their identified gender because about 1,600 transgender troops were diagnosed with gender dysphoria before April 2019 and grandfathered in under the Obama-era policy.
The Trump-era Pentagon policy had two tracks: a ban for any new service members or those serving who want to transition, and an inclusive policy for those who got their diagnosis before the deadline, the Palm Center report said.
To undo the ban, the Pentagon could simply continue the existing inclusive policy and apply it to all service members, not just those who were grandfathered in, while eliminating the prohibition enacted by Trump, the report said.
Jennifer Dane, the executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, a nonprofit group serving LGBTQ troops and their families, also said she had expected the policies to revert to those in place during the Obama administration.
Dane also urged Congress to make the change permanent so a future administration could not undo it by executive order.
“While we celebrate this momentous victory for a second time, our biggest hope is that this reversal becomes codified into law like the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to ensure this never happens again,” Dane said. “Any individual qualified and capable of joining the military should have the right to serve, period.”
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.