The Air Force has altered its procedures for making determinations about the continued employment of transgender service members, mirroring a recent decision by the Army that advocates hailed as a step forward for a group that has long been marginalized within the military.
In a statement posted on its website Thursday evening, the Air Force said that a senior Air Force official would now make decisions about whether to dismiss any personnel diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who identify as transgender.
“Though the Air Force policy regarding involuntary separation of gender dysphoric Airmen has not changed, the elevation of decision authority to the director, Air Force Review Boards Agency, ensures the ability to consistently apply the existing policy,” said Daniel Sitterly, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force.
Previously, that director made determinations about whether transgender Air Force officers would be dismissed, while commanders in the field made decisions about enlisted personnel. Now, the board director will have authority over all cases.
The Air Force says that transgender service members are recommended for dismissal only when their gender identify interferes with their military duties. “Identification as transgender, absent a record of poor duty performance, misconduct, or a medically disqualifying condition, is not a basis for involuntary separation,” the statement said.
A similar decision in March by the Army was cheered by advocates as historic, and as a possible sign that the military is preparing to overhaul its policy towards transgender service members, as it gradually did for gay and lesbian personnel.
According to the Williams Institute, a legal think tank that studies sexuality and gender issues, there are an estimated 15,500 transgender service members in the military.
While the U.S. military has not launched any specific review of its policy regarding transgender troops, there is a larger review taking place of rules governing who can join the military, which could result in changes for transgender personnel.
Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expressed openness to allowing transgender personnel to openly serve. Air Force Secretary Deborah James has also supported changes to her service’s transgender policy.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the White House did not have an official position on whether transgender people should be able to serve openly in the military.
The American Military Partner Association, an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender military families, hailed the Air Force decision, but said additional action is needed.
“Transgender service members sacrifice so much for our nation, and they should be able to serve openly, honestly, and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Ashley Broadway-Mack, the organization’s president.
Sue Fulton, president of SPARTA, an organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender military personnel, urged Carter to impose a moratorium on dismissing people based on their transgender identity until Pentagon policies are changed.