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On eve of deadline, Pentagon delays plan to allow transgender recruits by 6 months

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has delayed a plan approved by the Obama administration a year ago to begin allowing transgender recruits to join the U.S. military, providing the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a six-month reprieve that they requested, the Pentagon said Friday night.

The decision was made on the eve of a deadline set a year ago by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The services can now delay processing transgender recruits until Jan. 1, following another review of accession plans and providing information about how doing so will affect the military and its lethality, Mattis said in a memo. Details about that review must be provided back to Mattis by Dec. 1.

The defense secretary said in the memo that the delay “in no way presupposes an outcome,” but after consulting with top generals and other senior defense officials, he determined more time is needed before making a decision. He is confident, he said, that the Defense Department will continue to treat all service members with dignity and respect.

“Since becoming the Secretary of Defense, I have emphasized that the Department of Defense must measure each policy decision against one critical standard: will the decision affect the readiness and lethality of the force?” Mattis said. “Put another way, how will the decision affect the ability of America’s military to defend the nation? It is against this standard that I provide the following guidance on the way forward in accessing transgender individuals into the military Services.”

Previous coverage: The Pentagon’s ban on transgender service just fell, and the details are complicated

The current transgender policy, signed by Carter on June 30, 2016, banned the services from involuntarily separating people in the military who came out as transgender, and allowed the individuals to begin receiving medical care Oct. 1. But it also gave the Pentagon a year to determine how to begin processing new transgender recruits who want to serve.

Mattis’s decision was immediately decried by advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, who already had waited through a lengthy Pentagon view process that concluded last year. Meanwhile, a high-profile opponent to transgender people serving said the decision is welcome.

The delay “makes no sense,” considering that existing transgender service members have served successfully over the last year, said Aaron Belkin, the director of the Palm Center, a think tank that has helped the Pentagon with some research on sexuality. He said it will put transgender people who want to serve in the same position as gay people who wanted to serve during the now-repealed ban on open homosexual service known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“For the past year, transgender troops have been serving openly and have been widely praised by their Commanders,​ ​as is the case in 18 allied militaries around the world including Israel​ and​ Britain,” Belkin said in a statement. “Yet members of Congress are denigrating the value of military service by transgender troops, and Service Chiefs are pressuring Secretary Mattis to continue the transgender enlistment ban despite having no new arguments or data to back up their long-discredited assertions.”

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, the executive vice president of the conservative Family Research Council, said that the Pentagon is “right to hit the brakes,” and said that the transgender policy signed last year will not improve the military’s ability to fight and win wars.

“Personnel who identify as transgender are expected to receive exceptions to policies and medical requirements that their peers will still be required to meet,” Boykin said. “These exceptions may be applied to policies about everything from physical and mental fitness standards to dress and presentation standards, and they create an unfairness that will undermine unit cohesion and morale.”

Stephen Peters, a gay Marine veteran and national press secretary for Human Rights Campaign, disputed that point.

“Each day that passes without the policy in place restricts the armed forces’ ability to recruit the best and the brightest, regardless of gender identity,” he said. “We are disappointed in this needless delay because the thousands of highly trained and qualified transgender service members openly and proudly serving our nation today have proven that what matters is the ability to accomplish the mission, not their gender identity.”

The policy signed a year ago said that “not later than July 1, 2017,” the Pentagon would update its medical standards to account for people who have a history of gender dysphoria, the medical term for wanting to transition gender. It added that the condition was not necessarily disqualifying if a doctor certified that a prospective recruit was “stable without clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of function for 18 months.”

The policy also required transgender recruits to complete all medical treatment associated with their gender transition, be stable in their new gender for 18 months. Those guidelines were crafted with assistance from advocates for transgender people, including the Palm Center.

Two defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested the six-month delay in order to continue studying opening up military service to transgender recruits, as opposed to allowing service members who already were serving to begin identifying as transgender. That request was first reported last month by The Associated Press, which also said that the Air Force and Army originally wanted a two-year delay.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said June 19 in an appearance at the National Press Club that there is no issue with transgender service members who are already serving, and no ongoing review could affect their ability to serve. But he acknowledged that there were “some issues identified” by some of the service chiefs with allowing in transgender recruits, and that they wanted them resolved “before we move forward.”

Carter repealed the ban on transgender military service after a long, internal review that fell behind schedule as military officials struggled to reach a consensus. It followed Congress repealing the decades-old policy banning gay people from serving openly in 2011, and Carter lifting in 2015 a ban on women serving in the infantry and other ground-combat assignments.

Before Carter’s decision, the Pentagon considered transgender people to be sexual deviants who had to be ousted from service. In 2015, it moved the authority to discharge to higher-ranking commanders, making it tougher to force out service members who came out as transgender.

There are about 2,500 transgender service members among the 1.3 million active-duty members of the military and an additional 1,500 among reserve units, according to a Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon and published last year.