Months before Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the Pentagon would take steps toward allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military, Army Staff Sgt. Patricia King last year became what she believes is the first openly transgender member of the infantry. While official Pentagon policy still forbids openly transgender personnel, her commanders have been supportive, she said. King even purchased a female dress Army service uniform, anticipating that she would be able to wear it soon.
“I made a decision that owning that uniform was important to me, and I believe that our leadership is going to do the right thing,” she said.
But four months after a deadline set Carter set for a working group to finish evaluating the change, transgender service members are still waiting. Officials say disagreements remain in the Defense Department about how to move forward, suggesting that the Pentagon isn’t close to wrapping up the review, let alone instituting any changes.
Peter Levine, who recently took over as the Pentagon’s acting personnel chief, said that Carter remains committed to pursuing the change, but added that it will likely take “months, but not large numbers of months” more to finalize details.
“If there was consensus on it, yeah, we would have done it,” Levine said. “But obviously there are different views from different officials in the services.”
He added: “We’re going to work through that . . . and we’re going to do it expeditiously so that we can do it in this administration. But it’s important that we not only do it, but do it right.”
The military is already in the middle of a historic transition allowing women to serve in all combat roles. And the Pentagon is grappling with transgender rights as the issue has gained attention in other parts of the country, including North Carolina, where the governor is facing off with the federal government over a ban on transgender people using bathrooms that don’t match the gender they were assigned on their birth certificates. The Justice Department ruled the law discriminatory last week, and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) sued the department Monday, accusing the federal government of “baseless and blatant overreach.”
Also on Friday, the Obama administration directed schools across the country to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities.
The Pentagon’s decades-old policy considers transgender people to be sexual deviants, allowing the military to discharge them. The services — and later, Carter — decided last year to move that discharge authority to higher levels in the military, making it more difficult to force out transgender people. The lack of a new policy, however, continues to create complicated situations for transgender service members and their commanders.
In one case, Army Sgt. Shane Ortega, a transgender man, was required last summer to go to a uniform shop where he was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii with a senior enlisted soldier to obtain a female dress uniform in order to meet Army officials at the Pentagon to discuss transgender policy concerns, according to Ortega and Army officials.
Ortega said the incident showed “a real lack of leadership and a lack of human compassion” and demonstrated the level of discrimination and ignorance in the military about transgender people is huge.
“I had to go through this experience at a public time … and try on this uniform in a public space and basically be humiliated because everyone in the space is going to go, ‘Why is this male soldier trying on this female uniform?’ ”
Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, said that service policy dictated that “the appropriate uniform” for Ortega was the female dress uniform because he enlisted as a woman in 2009. Ortega and Hall said that the requirement was eventually dropped and that Ortega was allowed to wear a more unisex camouflage utility uniform to the meeting.
The Palm Center, an independent think tank that researches issues of sexuality, has assessed that there are about 12,800 transgender service members in the military. That’s down from 15,500, due to reductions in the overall size of the military in recent years, said Aaron Belkin, the center’s director.
Dozens of transgender service members have come out to their units, but the Pentagon hasn’t released directives for such gender-specific issues as uniforms, grooming and bathroom usage.
The services, for example, have some dress uniforms that include skirts. They also allow different hair length for men and women and have different physical fitness requirements for men and women. For example, the Marine Corps requires pull-ups for men but not for women. The Army requires push-ups instead of pull-ups, but fewer for women.
Some transgender service members also have had transfers to new units put on hold while the Pentagon sorts out its plan. They are also waiting to see how the military will address health-care coverage. The Pentagon does not currently cover hormone treatment for gender dysphoria, the medical term for wanting to transition gender, but it published a notice in the Federal Register in February that it is considering covering nonsurgical care.
“People are certainly suffering,” said Belkin, who met with Pentagon officials to discuss his group’s research. “It’s really unconscionable that they would leave 12,800 in limbo like this.”
The transgender issue is part of a larger set of reforms Carter tapped a former naval officer and Iraq War veteran, Brad Carson, to carry out as acting undersecretary of personnel and readiness. But Carson, a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma, faced a surprisingly difficult confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, at which Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), the chairman, and other members attacked Carson and his proposed changes.
The main target was his so-called Force of the Future plan, which promised to shake up the military service by, for instance, eliminating the military’s structured “up-or-out” promotion rules, which typically force someone who has been bypassed for a promotion to eventually leave the service.
“This initiative has been an outrageous waste of official time and resources during a period of severe fiscal restraints,” McCain fumed.
Carson and his top adviser, Morgan Plummer, announced their resignations a few weeks later. Carson declined to comment for this article, and Plummer could not be reached, but there are indications that they considered nearly all their work on the new transgender policy finished when they left. One of Carson’s last accomplishments before leaving was delivering an implementation plan to Carter on transgender policy, Politico reported last month.
One issue Carson did not consider settled was how long the Defense Department should require transgender people to wait after transitioning their sex before being allowed to join the military, according to a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss Pentagon deliberations. The Army and Marine Corps advocated 24 months, while the Navy and Air Force thought 12 were sufficient, citing recommendations from medical professionals. Carson, perhaps trying to negotiate the land services down, recommended requiring a six-month wait, the defense official said.
It’s unclear whether the military has resolved whether to help pay for the cost of surgery for transgender service members who request it. A Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Defense Department and first reported on by the New York Times last month found that repealing the ban on transgender service would have minimal impact on the force and lead to no more than 129 of the military’s million-plus troops seeking transition-related care each year.
Carter, speaking to an auditorium of Air Force Academy cadets Thursday, said that the only barriers that should prevent someone from serving are “practical issues that we can’t work through,” and he predicted that the Pentagon will soon wrap up its work on the change. He told reporters afterward that “there aren’t any hang-ups” preventing a new policy from being adopted and that the working group is doing a thorough job.
A transgender airman, Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland, said he was given an exception to a policy that allowed him to serve as a man during a deployment to Afghanistan’s Kandahar Airfield between October 2014 and May 2015. He said he’s now convinced that it’s not a matter of if the policy will change, but when.
“You’ve got to look at the bigger picture in the military,” he said. “We have bigger issues and world problems going on. It will change, and we’ll have full gender inclusion.”