The Pentagon recently hosted its fifth annual Pride celebration, five months after the Defense Department missed its own deadline to complete a review of its transgender service ban. While transgender advocates hoped the event would bring an announcement of the ban’s end, nothing was said about repeal.
Last July Defense Secretary Ash Carter vowed to end the trans ban after six months of study. Yet 11 months have now passed and, under increased questioning about the delay, Carter has taken to using a popular but ultimately meaningless Facebook expression: It’s complicated. In the military, the secretary said last month, “we do things in a careful, thoughtful manner.” Transgender service “is a complicated issue,” he said, with practical considerations that take time to work out. Other officials have echoed this sound bite.
Yet it’s increasingly obvious that ostensible concerns are, in fact, a delay tactic masquerading as complexity. While it’s true that practical questions about transgender service had to be answered, all genuine questions — as opposed to stalling tactics — about implementing inclusive policy have now been addressed by a wide variety of expert sources. The suggestion that trans service is “complicated” misses a deceptively simple reality: Transgender personnel should be governed by the same principles and standards that govern all other troops — and existing military regulations already provide for every likely scenario that may arise with an inclusive policy.
For instance, some in the military’s working group have reportedly pushed to impose a two-year waiting period after a military applicant has transitioned gender before he or she is eligible to enlist. Their thinking appears to be that changing genders requires an unusually long period of medical recovery. But there is no science to back this up, and in fact there is an international consensus that the medical aspects of gender transition are no more complicated or risky than similar medical treatment given for other reasons. Moreover, current enlistment regulations already include standard waiting periods after medical treatment, such as six months following chest surgery. A two-year wait for the same procedure for a transgender person would be unprecedented and punitive — and not grounded in medical science.
Other examples abound of how straightforward trans service really is. Needlessly complex proposals have been entertained for changing gender markers on identification documents, but the military already relies on passports as proof of personal identity and can easily use the same procedure for gender identity. It could effectively outsource resolution of this question to another government department already set up to deal with it, just as other government agencies now do. Concerns have also been raised about how the military health care system will administer supposedly “exotic” medications in “austere” environments. Yet this is a double standard. The military already allows non-transgender individuals to deploy overseas even if they rely on similar medical treatments as transgender people do, such as hormone supplements taken for gynecological reasons.
The military has had nearly a year to consider these issues — issues that many experts and scholars have ably provided answers for. Most recently, the Pentagon commissioned the RAND Corp. to exhaustively study the question of transgender military service. Its report found nothing overly complicated about implementation of trans-inclusive policy, and concluded that the financial costs and overall impact on the military are expected to be “exceedingly small.” This research echoed the findings of others who have studied this issue, and of lessons from the 18 countries whose militaries allow transgender service.
Some of the anxiety expressed by military officials is surely rooted in fear and bias, as was the case in debate over ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Sometimes people call something “complicated” when they really mean it’s “unfamiliar” or outside their experience, such as when the nation spent decades worrying about the impact on the military of treating gays and lesbians equally, only to find that ending discrimination caused no harm to readiness.
What’s clearest in the research — across decades of scholarship on military and institutional policy change — is that implementing new rules goes most smoothly when there is clear leadership from the top. Calling this reform process “complicated” works at cross purposes with this well-established principle of leadership and policy reform, sending mixed messages to commanders and the entire force about whether trans service is viable or is a danger to the military.
The easiest way to move forward is to stop delaying, stop claiming “it’s complicated,” and announce a new policy expeditiously. Transgender troops who wish to serve their country deserve and require rules that are no different from those applied to any of their peers. And they deserve resolution on this issue so they can stop serving in limbo. Sometimes achieving equality is simply a matter of treating people equally.
Aaron Belkin is director of the Palm Center, a research institute producing scholarship about sexual minorities in the military.