Gay rights groups on Monday called on the military to lift its ban on transgender service members, after new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter suggested over the weekend that being transgender should not alone preclude a person from serving.
“I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them,” Carter said Sunday during a question-and-answer session with troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, according to a transcript posted on the Pentagon’s Web site.
While he has not closely studied the military’s policy, he told the troops, “I come at this kind of question from a fundamental starting point, which is that we want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country.”
He added, “And I’m very open-minded about — otherwise about what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us. That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members?”
The response caused ripples among gender rights advocates, not only because it came just days after Carter was sworn in but also because it was viewed as just the latest sign that there is renewed momentum to lift the ban, which remained in place even after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding openly gay troops was lifted in 2011.
More than 15,000 transgender men and women serve in the military, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank that studies sexual orientation. While “don’t ask, don’t tell” was lifted by Congress, the transgender ban is a policy that could be lifted administratively by the Obama administration.
Supporters of the transgender ban have said lifting it could hurt unit cohesion and combat readiness. But rights advocates have said it could be lifted without incident, just as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was, and have cited studies that have found there would be no harm in letting transgender members serve openly and that lifting the policy would be not be administratively complicated.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that President Obama agreed with Carter’s sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve, but he declined to discuss next steps.
“We here at the White House welcome the comments from the secretary of defense,” he told reporters during a briefing. “But in terms of — of additional steps the Department of Defense will take to address the matter, I’d refer you to the secretary’s office.”
A spokesman for the Pentagon said a review began this month of the military’s health policies, including the transgender policy. The routine review will be completed in 12 to 18 months, he said. The last time a review like this took place was in 2011.
Advocates played down the significance of the review, saying the military has conducted this same exercise repeatedly, and time and again officials have left the transgender ban in place.
“It’s just not enough,” said Allyson Robinson, policy director of SPARTA, a group that advocates for transgender service members. “This is a very specific problem, and it needs to be properly addressed by a process that’s proven effective, and this one has proven exactly the opposite.”
Carter’s remarks on Sunday came in response to a question by Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, a Navy lieutenant commander and physician based in Kandahar, about transgender service in austere environments. In an e-mail, Ehrenfeld said he asked the question because he has treated a transgender service member and interacted with others.
“I am continually struck by how these individuals, who risk their lives every day to support our mission, live not in fear of the enemy, but rather in fear of being discovered for who they are,” wrote Ehrenfeld, an officer for nearly seven years who lives in Nashville with his partner.
Among those present for Carter’s remarks was a transgender service member, according to SPARTA, which did not disclose the service member’s name because coming out could be grounds for dismissal.
“I wanted to tell him I’m one of those people serving in silence,” the service member, who holds an enlisted rank, said in a statement issued by the group. “I love my job, I’m supported and respected by the people I serve with, and I want to make the military a career. But until the regs are updated, just speaking up for myself could end it all.”
The exchange came after a period in which many thought that efforts to lift the ban had stalled at the Pentagon. Many advocates worried that time could be running out as the end of Obama’s term approached. Dismissal proceedings continued for service members discovered to be transgender.
Then in December, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James suggested that the ban may eventually be lifted. Earlier this month, the military announced it would provide hormone treatment to Chelsea Manning, the former Army private in prison for leaking classified documents. And immediately after being sworn in, Carter appointed as his chief of staff Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning, who is openly gay.
Gay rights advocates have taken these developments to be a positive sign for their cause and urged the military to go further.
“We urge Secretary Carter to put action to his comments by ordering an immediate review of the outdated regulations that prevent transgender service members from serving our nation openly and honestly,” David Stacy, government affairs director at the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “Our nation’s transgender service members bravely and heroically serve our nation, and they certainly deserve to be able to be honest about who they are.”
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.