The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A former Navy commander could become the most senior openly transgender Pentagon official

(Charles Dharapak/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A former Navy commander could become the highest-ranking defense official who is openly transgender, as barriers for transgender service members continue to fall.

Shawn Skelly, a retired aviator, was nominated by the White House on Friday to serve as the assistant secretary of defense for readiness, a key assignment as the Pentagon refocuses its priorities to adversaries such as China and Russia.

Her appointment comes as the Biden administration chips away at Trump-era bans on transgender service members that restricted open service and blocked access to relevant medical care. The Pentagon reversed those policies last month, largely returning to policies set by the Obama administration.

Brenda “Sue” Fulton, a former Army officer who in 1980 was commissioned in the first U.S. Military Academy class to admit women, was also nominated to serve in a top Pentagon post, as assistant secretary for personnel and reserve affairs. She became the first openly gay member of the academy’s Board of Visitors after her appointment by President Barack Obama in 2011.

Advocates estimate that transgender troops number close to 15,000, with many having joined the military or come out to their comrades after the Obama administration created pathways to service in 2016.

The Trump administration’s reversal three years later, implemented after an initial announcement in a tweet by President Donald Trump, crushed morale and dried up an enlistment pool of otherwise qualified candidates, advocates and studies have said.

The Pentagon has not made public any statistics on how many transgender troops may have left the military since the 2019 order took effect, but the agency is reviewing how many may have been forced out or denied reenlistment, defense officials said last month.

Both Skelly and Fulton have for years led calls to broaden rights for gay and transgender service members.

Fulton helped push for the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prohibited openly gay troops from serving, and is the former president of SPART*A, a military transgender advocacy group. Skelly, who was also appointed to Biden’s transition team and previously worked at the Pentagon as a special assistant, co-founded the nonprofit group Out in National Security.

Skelly criticized the Pentagon in an October essay, claiming officials responded to Trump’s ban by distributing analysis designed to fit Trump’s assumptions, including debunked notions that associated medical care was prohibitively expensive.

“There is no reason to think transgender Americans are incapable of meeting the qualifications and standards required of any other recruit or candidate,” she wrote in an essay in Defense360. “It is not the presence of transgender service members which threatens military readiness, it is [the] policy’s very discrimination against them.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Skelly would join Rachel Levine, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health, as the highest-ranking openly transgender federal officials. Levine was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last month.