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In sprint to address LGBTQ rights, Biden reverses Trump-era ban on transgender people serving in the military

President Biden on Jan. 25 signed an executive order lifting the ban on transgender people serving openly in the U.S. military. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden on Monday repealed the Trump administration’s ban on transgender personnel serving openly in the U.S. military, taking early action to advance campaign promises targeting discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in the federal government, schools and other areas of American society.

The executive order, which will provide immediate protection to transgender troops at risk of being forced out of the military, addresses critics’ concerns that Trump-era restrictions would shrink the military’s recruiting pool and sideline qualified service members. Lifting the ban, Biden said, will make for a more effective force.

“America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive,” the White House said in a statement. “The military is no exception.”

The decision represents one element in a flurry of actions unveiled in the Biden administration’s initial days that seek to support transgender equality — which the president has called “the civil rights issue of our time” — and gay and lesbian rights.

The order underscores the new administration’s intent to move away from a course set under President Donald Trump in which a series of decisions erased protections for transgender people in health care, federal employment, homeless shelters and other areas. The Trump administration also rescinded Obama-era guidance that protected transgender students, and declared that federal law required a Connecticut school to ban transgender students from participating in school sports.

Monday’s decision effectively repeals a 2019 Defense Department order that imposed tight limits on service by transgender troops, allowing them only if they hadn’t been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, hadn’t transitioned gender and didn’t need to, and could meet standards for their biological gender including for grooming and uniforms. Those rules, which Pentagon ­officials rolled out to match Trump’s abrupt 2017 Twitter proclamation that transgender troops would be banned, reversed more permissive policies issued by the Obama administration.

Activists said the Trump-era rules amounted to a ban on transgender personnel in the military, who are believed to number close to 15,000. The Pentagon has not made public any statistic on how many transgender troops may have left the military since the 2019 order took effect.

According to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the new regulations will permit recruits who meet entry standards to serve in their self-identified gender, and will ensure that the military pays for medically necessary care related to gender transition. The new order will also halt steps to force transgender personnel out of the military.

“We should avail ourselves of the best possible talent in our population, regardless of gender identity,” Austin said in a statement. “This is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do.”

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one of the attorneys who led the challenge to the military transgender ban in court, said the new order “marks the end of the most serious threat to the legal equality of transgender people in our nation’s history.”

“It was literally the federal government telling the world that transgender people are mentally unstable, unfit,” Minter said, adding that military service has long been considered a ­cornerstone for equal citizenship in the United States. “We will look back on this as the beginning of a real turning point in the struggle of transgender legal equality.”

Biden, who in 2012 announced his support for legalizing ­same-sex marriage ahead of President Barack Obama, has made ­LGBTQ rights a signature issue.

Advocates have seen Biden’s presidency as an opportunity following an administration that they viewed as hostile to many of their priorities. The advocacy group GLAAD recorded more than 181 anti-LGBTQ statements and actions during the Trump administration.

On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order aimed at expanding anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans, directing all federal agencies to review existing regulations and policies that prohibit sex discrimination and to revise them as necessary to clarify that “sex” includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

For transportation secretary, Biden has chosen Pete Buttigieg, who would become the first openly gay Cabinet member if his nomination is approved by lawmakers. Fellow nominee Rachel Levine, tapped to be a top health official, would become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Biden has also pushed for passage of the Equality Act, which would add anti-bias protections for LGBTQ people in all 50 states, covering housing and public services in ways that are currently in place in 21 states. The legislation last year was approved in the House but not the Senate.

On transgender rights, Biden has pressed for new guidance that would allow transgender students to access sports, bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. That move would reinstate guidance from the Obama administration that was repealed by the Trump administration. Biden also has said he would direct the Education Department to vigorously enforce and investigate any violations.

The repeal of the military restrictions was cheered by Democrats in Congress.

“By reversing the harmful, discriminatory policy of the previous administration, President Biden has ensured that thousands of transgender service members will be able to serve as their authentic selves,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Some conservatives voiced criticism. “By overturning the current policy regarding individuals suffering from gender dysphoria, the commander in chief is signaling that he is more interested in social engineering than safeguarding the health and well-being of American service members,” said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

According to the Defense Department, a study conducted during the Obama administration found that open service by transgender troops would have only a “minimal impact” on military readiness and medical costs.

Lt. Col. Bree Fram, an active-duty astronautical engineer in the Air Force who is the highest-ranking openly transgender officer in the Defense Department, called the decision “a massive weight off our shoulders.”

Fram, who is also the vice president of SPART*A, an advocacy organization, publicly came out as transgender on the day the Obama administration began allowing transgender troops to openly serve in 2016. She will be recommissioning into the Space Force next month.

Fram said she is part of a Facebook group of 1,200 transgender service members who are “euphoric” about the lifting of the ban. She also said she hopes Biden’s order opens the door to more equitable policies across the military for transgender troops, particularly when it comes to health care.

But for now, “people are just so excited for the chance to be themselves and serve,” she said. “We’re no longer declared a burden by the government.”

Nicolas Talbott was enrolled in an Army ROTC program as a Kent State University graduate student when the Trump administration’s ban went into effect. Talbott, a transgender man from Lisbon, Ohio, who had hoped to enlist in the Air Force, said he was left “standing on the sidelines” as friends signed up.

“The tone of this policy was that transgender people are ­lesser, that they are not as deserving as other people, that we are somehow a burden,” said Talbott, who was a plaintiff in one of the legal challenges to Trump’s ban.

Biden’s executive order means Talbott can once again enroll in an ROTC program and pursue his goal of becoming an intelligence officer in the Army or Air Force. “Being able to put on that uniform and stand there next to everyone else is a testament that . . . trans people are just as capable, as qualified, as willing as anybody else,” Talbott said.