The Pentagon held its fifth annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride ceremony Wednesday as some advocates for transgender service members grow increasingly frustrated that the Defense Department has not introduced a policy change that will allow them to serve openly.
The event was celebrated in the Pentagon courtyard more than five years after the Defense Department’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gay service members from serving openly was rescinded, and nearly a year after Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter launched a group to examine the effects of open transgender service. That study was supposed to wrap up five months ago, but the Pentagon hasn’t announced any changes.
“That fight for true equality in the LGBT community will continue as you move forward,” Army Undersecretary Patrick J. Murphy said Wednesday, stressing the “T,” as he received an award.
That was the most overt reference to the transgender issue during the ceremony, which advocates of transgender service had hoped would be used to announce a change in policy. Carter did not attend the event, but issued a statement through the Pentagon noting that June is LGBT Pride Month and that the Defense Department recognizes LGBT service members and civilians for their efforts.
“Throughout our history, brave LGBT soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines have served and fought for our nation,” Carter said. “Their readiness and willingness to serve has made our military stronger and our nation safer.”
Carter announced in July that he was directing his new working group to proceed “with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified.”
Under current rules, transgender service members are considered unfit to serve and can be honorably discharged if diagnosed with “psychosexual conditions, including but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias,” according to a Defense Department directive. The Palm Center, a think tank that researches issues of sexuality, estimates that the military has about 12,800 transgender service members.
Defense officials told The Washington Post in May that disagreements remained in the Defense Department about how to move forward, with Peter Levine, the Pentagon’s acting personnel chief, predicting that it would take “months, but not large numbers of months,” more to finalize details. Opponents of the changes have raised questions about whether allowing open transgender service will hurt combat effectiveness or divert money away from other priorities.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Monday that several issues about allowing transgender service were still unresolved, but that he anticipated they would be soon.
“The secretary challenged people within the department to … try and resolve this issue,” Cook said. “There has been progress in terms of trying to consider how to move forward here and resolve this issue in the fashion that he first outlined several months ago.”
In protest of the delays, the leader of SPARTA, one group that has worked with the Pentagon on issues of sexuality, declined to attend Wednesday’s celebration. In an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Advocate, SPARTA Board of Directors Chairwoman Sue Fulton said she would not do so because she didn’t want to leave anyone behind.
“The Pentagon Pride theme is not ‘Gay Pride,’ ” she wrote. “It’s “LGBT Pride.” She added: “It’s been almost a year since Defense Secretary Ash Carter stopped discharging transgender service members and announced a review of the Pentagon’s policy, expecting resolution in six months. We at SPARTA, along with the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Palm Center, have answered every question posed to us. We’ve addressed every scenario. And still we wait.”
Aaron Belkin, the director of the Palm Center, attended the ceremony Wednesday but walked away uncertain why the transgender issue wasn’t addressed.
“I don’t know what the delay is about and why there has been no explanation, and I don’t know why it wasn’t discussed today, but it was surprising and awkward,” Belkin said.
Ashley Broadway-Mack, president of the American Military Partner Association, said in a statement that the ceremony was an important celebration of diversity, but “also a stark reminder” that full LGBT rights do not exist in the military.
“The continued delay in lifting the ban on open service for transgender service members is frustrating and deeply disappointing for so many of our families,” said Broadway-Mack, whose association bills itself as the nation’s largest group of LGBT military families. “It’s been almost a year since Secretary Carter made the historic announcement that the Pentagon would lift the ban, yet transgender service members and their families are still in limbo.”
Dozens of transgender service members have come out to their units, but the Defense Department hasn’t released rules for such gender-specific issues as uniforms, grooming and bathroom usage. One issue that was unresolved earlier this year was how long the Defense Department should require transgender people to wait after transitioning their sex before being allowed to join the military. The Army and the Marine Corps advocated 24 months, while the Navy and Air Force thought 12 was sufficient, citing recommendations from medical professionals.
It’s also 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 by the New York Times in April found that repealing the ban on transgender service would have minimal impact on the force and lead to up to 129 of the military’s million-plus troops seeking transition-related care each year.