The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As transgender ban looms, Pentagon leaders distance themselves from LGBT pride events

People wave flags to celebrate Pride Month in Los Angeles on June 2. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Senior leaders at the Pentagon are distancing themselves from the Defense Department’s annual LGBT Pride Month celebrations, declining to formally acknowledge the observances for the first time since the practice became routine after President Barack Obama repealed the military’s ban on homosexuals serving openly. 

The absence this year of an official Pentagon memo marking LGBT Pride Month has raised questions among service members and Defense Department civilian employees who are troubled by President Trump’s surprise proclamation last July that he would ban transgender people from serving in the military. Typically, the memo is distributed as LGBT Pride Month begins each June, effectively endorsing the observance and encouraging personnel to hold local events. The memo has put LGBT Pride Month on par with other special observances and heritage months.

“It opens the door for LGBT service members, civilians and their allies on military bases to hold events recognizing Pride Month without having to ask for special permission or an exception,” said a former senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the official’s dealings with the Pentagon. “It makes it known that there’s an authorization, that there’s support.” 

Trump issues order supporting ban on many transgender troops, defers to Pentagon on new restrictions

Even without an official observance memo, the LGBT employee group at the Defense Department held an event Monday at the Pentagon. Contrary to past years, though, no high-level department leaders made public remarks — another first since such events began in 2012, the year after the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed. Instead, Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.) headlined Monday’s gathering.

Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, declined to discuss why no observance memo has been issued this year, saying only: “The Department of Defense supports diversity of all kinds across our military and we encourage everyone to celebrate the diversity of our total force team. . . . We value all members of the DOD total force and recognize their immense contributions to the mission.”

Gleason noted, too, that despite the absence of an official memo, the Pentagon’s LGBT employee group held its annual event.

The event’s organizers designed this year’s promotional posters because, without an official observance memo, the Pentagon’s design office was prohibited from doing the work, according to people familiar with the plans. 

The Defense Department Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity maintains a website publicizing the posters and memos designating 2018’s other official observances. As of Monday, it listed five: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Holocaust Days of Remembrance, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In each instance, all materials were distributed across the force in accordance with regular protocol.

The Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness is responsible for issuing the memos. Robert L. Wilkie, Trump’s nominee to become the next Veterans Affairs secretary, currently runs the office, pending his confirmation to the Cabinet post. 

Trump’s transgender ban has yet to go into effect because of court challenges. In the meantime, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has recommended a new policy that disqualifies transgender people who require or have already undergone gender transition, and bans people with current or recent gender dysphoria except in rare circumstances. Gender dysphoria is the medical term for people who feel distress as a result of their birth gender. 

Trump has said he supports Mattis’s recommendations. 

Mattis’s policy recommendation marks a reversal of the Obama administration’s decision in 2016 to lift a ban on transgender men and women serving in the U.S. armed forces, though it grandfathers those currently serving.

Trump positioned himself as a supporter of gay rights during his campaign, promising during the Republican National Convention to “protect LGBTQ citizens.” His decision last July to announce a ban on transgender people serving in the military has drawn sharp criticism from gay rights groups and raised questions about the commitment he offered on the campaign trail.