WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Monday overturned President Donald Trump’s policy that aimed to ban transgender troops from service.
Biden directed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to implement a policy that prohibits discrimination against troops based on their gender identity and requires the Pentagon to report within 60 days its progress in unraveling the ban.
Biden said the move makes the nation safer.
“Today, I repealed the discriminatory ban on transgender people serving in the military,” Biden said in a tweet. “It’s simple: America is safer when everyone qualified to serve can do so openly and with pride.”
The directive to reverse the previous administration’s policy is one of Biden’s first moves to unravel Trump’s legacy in the military and elsewhere in government.
During his congressional confirmation hearing Jan. 19, Austin vowed to rescind the ban and “to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.” The ban would have been lifted on Inauguration Day, but Biden wanted to ensure more of his team was in place at the Pentagon to ensure the smooth implementation of his order, according to an official with the transition team who was not authorized to speak publicly.
In a statement Monday, Austin called repeal of the ban “the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do.”
The Pentagon will move immediately to ensure transgender troops are not discharged or denied reenlistment based on gender identity, Austin said. They will also receive medically required treatment for transition. The Pentagon will review cases of transgender troops who had action taken against them under the Trump-era ban.
“We would be rendering ourselves less fit to the task if we excluded from our ranks people who meet our standards and who have the skills and the devotion to serve in uniform,” Austin said.
In 2016, the Pentagon under President Barack Obama repealed a long-standing policy that prohibited transgender troops from serving openly, and it allowed them to receive counseling and medical treatment, including surgery. A study commissioned by the Pentagon found that overturning the ban would have minimal costs and effects on the readiness of troops to fight.
Trump announced by tweet in July 2017 his intent to ban transgender troops, a move that surprised Pentagon brass. Amid court challenges, the Pentagon implemented a policy developed under then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that banned troops who required treatment for gender dysphoria.
Mattis said the policy was needed because treating transgender troops detracted from the military’s readiness to fight.
Gender dysphoria results from the conflict between physical gender and gender identity and should not disqualify troops from serving, according to the American Medical Association and other major medical and psychiatric organizations.
The Trump policy required transgender troops to serve based on their sex at birth. Transgender troops who had begun receiving treatment under the Obama-era policy were grandfathered in.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., derided the policy as “bigoted.”
The Pentagon estimated that there were about 9,000 transgender troops serving in 2016, and about 1,000 of them had a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The Palm Center, a think tank that focuses on issues involving LGBT troops, estimated that there are about 14,000 transgender troops in the active-duty and reserve force of 2 million.
“Today, those who believe in fact-based public policy and a strong, smart national defense have reason to be proud,” Aaron Belkin, director of the center, said in a statement. “The Biden administration has made good on its pledge to put military readiness above political expediency by restoring inclusive policy for transgender troops. The ban will now be replaced with a single standard for everyone that, as in the successful previous policy, will apply equally to all service members.”
Three retired surgeons general co-wrote a report with the Palm Center that found the ban hurt military readiness by, among other things, repelling potential recruits.
Retired Army Col. Sheri Swokowski, a transgender veteran whose doctoral dissertation focused on barriers to care for transgender troops, said the Pentagon has failed to provide adequate care, noting that some troops wait years for required surgery or choose to pay for it on their own.
“The process is so sluggish, an increasing number of service members have chosen to avoid the DoD process entirely, despite incurring five-figure costs, to best support unit mission timelines and meet individual health needs,” Swokowski said.
Her research found that the Pentagon spends about $3 million per year on treatment for transgender troops. The Pentagon annually spends about $50 billion annually on health care.
Resistance from commanders and red tape led one soldier to pay more than $24,000 for her own treatment.
The soldier, who said she knew she was trans at age 13 or 14, joined the Army at 17. Now 30, she’s a senior enlisted soldier and served a one-year deployment to Afghanistan. She talked about her experience on condition that she not be identified over concerns of retaliation.
She thought about leaving the Army to complete transition treatment but reenlisted in 2015 when she heard that the Pentagon was considering repeal of the ban on transgender troops. She began paying for her own treatment but found military medical providers were not supportive, she said.
After the policy was rescinded in 2016, she had her name changed. A year later, after Trump’s policy ban by tweet, things worsened. She was forced to cut her hair, she said. She had issues with some commanders through 2018 but none with her peers, she said.
She paid for her own surgeries and used her leave time for recovery. The military should pay for the treatment, just like any other medical condition, she said, but troops should recover on their own time and not let it affect their jobs.