Pentagon leaders avoid questions about new transgender policy

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 29, 2018

WASHINGTON — Nearly a week after the White House announced it intends to at least partially ban transgender people from serving in the military, top Pentagon leaders have continually declined to answer questions about the updated policy.

The Pentagon’s top spokeswoman Dana White told reporters Thursday that she could not answer their myriad questions about the proposed policy announced by the White House on March 23. The White House said the policy is based on recommendations by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

For now, the Pentagon has not tried to stop transgender people from enlisting and serving. Despite President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement in the summer that he would ban transgender people from the military, Pentagon leadership has bowed to court orders by four federal judges to allow transgender servicemembers to continue to serve.

“We will continue to comply with four court orders accepting transgender applicants for military service and retaining current transgender servicemembers,” White said Thursday at a news briefing, acknowledging reporters were likely to have questions about the policy. “Because there is ongoing litigation and to safeguard the integrity of the court process, I am unable to provide any further details at this time.”

White declined to answer a barrage of questions seeking clarifications about the proposed policy, about Mattis’ recommendations and the methodology used by the Defense Department to arrive at those proposals. She referred all questions about the Pentagon’s proposed policy to the Department of Justice, which she described as the lead agency on the issue. The Department of Justice did not immediately respond Thursday to a requests for comment about the policy.

On Monday and Tuesday, Mattis also declined to answer questions about transgender servicemembers, citing the pending litigation. Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, was also asked Thursday about the policy and he declined to comment.

Critics of the Trump administration policy blasted the Pentagon’s silence.

“Dana White fielded nine questions about the transgender ban [Thursday], and declined to elaborate on the policy,” Aaron Belkin, the director of the Palm Center, wrote in a statement following the news briefing. The Palm Center is a California lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights think tank that helped the Pentagon shape its 2016 policy opening service to transgender people.

Under former President Barrack Obama’s last Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the Pentagon opened military service to all transgender people in June 2016, largely based on a study that it commissioned from the think tank Rand Corp. that determined transgender servicemembers could serve openly with little impact on combat readiness and without major costs to the Defense Department. The organization estimated there were between 4,000 and 12,000 transgender troops on active duty and in the reserves.

In Mattis’ recommendation, released publicly in a 48-page document last week alongside the White House announcement, the defense secretary proposed banning any individuals from serving who have a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria with three exceptions:

  • “those stable in their biological sex for 36 months prior to accession”
  • “those in service diagnosed with gender dysphoria who do not require a change of gender and remain deployable.”
  • “those in service who received a diagnosis before this policy took effect may continue in service in their preferred gender and receive appropriate medical treatment.”

His guidance would bar any individual from service who has undergone gender reassignment surgery. It was not clear whether the Pentagon would dismiss servicemembers who have undergone the operation.

Mattis wrote his recommendations were based on the findings of a “panel of experts” who had studied the issue since August, when the White House formalized Trump’s initial ban on transgender people serving in the military. The documents do not identify the experts involved in the study, other than to specify it included combat veterans. White and other officials would not provide the names of the experts who sat on the panel.

“What’s more important than whether or not the Pentagon opts to defend the ban is that the ban is based on scientific distortions that the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association and former U.S. surgeons general immediately condemned. The Pentagon is distorting the science, and nothing that spokespersons say or don’t say in the briefing room changes that,” Belkin wrote in his statement.

In his recommendation to Trump, Mattis wrote Rand’s study included “significant shortcomings” and relied on incomplete data.

“In short, this policy issue has proven more complex than the prior administration or Rand assumed,” he wrote.

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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