With the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden signed an executive order Monday lifting the ban on transgender personnel being able to openly serve in the U.S. mililtary.
The order protects transgender troops who were at risk of being forced out of the military and effectively gets rid of a 2019 Department of Defense order that imposed tight limits on transgender people’s ability to serve.
The 2019 order would only allow transgender people to serve if they had not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, had not transitioned sex and could meet standards for their biological gender for grooming and uniforms.
The decision to lift the ban was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to support transgender equality and gay and lesbian rights, something the president has called “the civil rights issue of our time.” According to a statement from the White House released after signing the executive order, “America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive. The military is no exception.”
Allowing transgender people to openly serve in the military is a step in the right direction, according to one local professor.
Michelle Dietert, a professor with the social science department at Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen, has been studying transgender issues since 2008. An Army veteran herself, she said she became interested in studying transgender persons in the military after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military was repealed in 2011.
“When ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed in 2011, it didn’t apply to transgenders,” Dietert said. “ Now whether or not lifting the ban takes us back to what was originally done in 2015 to allow transgender people to openly serve or not, I can only speculate. I think that Biden will start where they left off before Trump put the ban on transgender people again in 2017.”
In 2015, the administration of former President Barrack Obama put into place a policy allowing transgender persons to serve in the military, a policy that went into effect June 30, 2016. The policy was to be phased in and fully implemented by July 1, 2017, but a tweet by former President Donald Trump put a halt to it.
At the time, the new rules would have given military commanders broad flexibility in implementing the policy, noting that not all transition cases are the same. Commanders would have the discretion to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, including job placement, deployments, training delays and other accommodations based on the needs of the military mission and whether the service members could perform their duties.
Those who were serving would only be allowed to use the bathrooms, housing, uniforms and fitness standards of their preferred gender once they were legally transitioned to that identity. For those wishing to join the military, a medical provider would have to have certified they had been clinically stable in their preferred gender for 18 months and free of significant impairment in order to join.
Whether or not the Biden administration will go back to that plan is unclear, however, Dietert said. Specifics on how the policy should be implemented have still not been released.
“I think President Biden’s executive order is the first step in the right direction,” she said. “He talked about how America’s strength is through diversity, so that’s the right step. I know a lot of individuals who are serving who are pretty excited about it, and I know a lot of individuals who may have served before who might want to reenlist. Transgender people who had to put their military careers on hold simply because they were transgender.”
For transgender people to be certain they will be able to continue to serve, it will take more than an executive order, Dietert said. Congress will have to pass legislation to ensure a future president could not reinstate a ban by executive fiat.
“I’m a researcher, but I also believe in equality,” Dietert said. “I really feel from my own experience with talking to transgender people through my research, that they just want to serve their country. That’s the bottom line, and I don’t think that gender or race or anything like that should stop people from wanting to serve their country.”
The most recent statistics from the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2019 estimates about 15,000 transgender people are currently serving on active duty and there are about 134,000 veterans who identify as transgender. Dietert said that’s probably not the most accurate number, however, as those who are transgender have been leary of speaking of their orientation out of fear they would lose their careers.
How the integration will go is uncertain because of this, she said. Research is difficult to do when the target population is unwilling to come forward.
“But there are other countries around the world who have already integrated transgender people into their militaries, so it should be easy enough to reach out to them and see what they did and copy what worked,” Dietert said. “I think we could learn a lot from other countries if we’re open to it. The military has integrated many things, such as gays and lesbians, people of color, and women are now allowed to take on combat positions that they weren’t before, so I guess at the end of the day, this is just another hurdle we have to get over so that anyone who wants to serve, can.”
It will take some time to figure out how to make the integration go smoothly though, she said. “The Obama administration started it in 2015, then it was interrupted, but there is plenty of research to show that transgender people are capable of serving with no problem. I’m personally excited about it, not only as a researcher but as an American.”
The only thing that remains to be seen is what the policy will be that is put in place, how it will affect those currently serving and how it will affect those who wish to join the military, Dietert said.
“We don’t know that yet. Maybe we can go back and look at what was started in the Obama administration to see what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “From my research, it seemed things were going along fine.”
Regardless, serving in the military should always be about capability and willingness, not about what sex a person identifies as, Dietert said. “Are you capable of serving and are you willing to serve? I think this is kind of what Biden was doing, is just letting people serve who want to serve.
“It’s just about looking forward now. We just need thoughtful people that can get us through and do the right thing for the American people and the military. I’m very hopeful about the future.”