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President Joe Biden signs an Executive Order reversing the Trump era ban on transgender individuals serving in military, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021.
President Joe Biden signs an Executive Order reversing the Trump era ban on transgender individuals serving in military, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. (Evan Vucci/AP)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Monday ended the Pentagon’s ban on most transgender men and women joining the military, fulfilling a campaign promise to undo one of President Donald Trump’s signature Pentagon policies.

Biden issued an executive order Monday that allows all qualified Americans to serve in the military, regardless of their gender identity.

“President Biden believes that all gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” according to a White House statement. “Allowing all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform is better for the military and better for the country because an inclusive force is a more effective force. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do and is in our national interest.”

The order directs the defense secretary and the Homeland Security secretary to implement it and make certain all regulations and policies follow the new executive order.

It also immediately stops involuntary separations, discharges, and denials of reenlistment or continuation of service due to gender identity, according to the statement. The order also starts a process to find and examine records of personnel who were kicked out based on their gender identity and correct their military records.

An initial report is to be submitted to Biden within 60 days on the progress for implementing the new directives and policy, according to the statement.

The policy change was expected to essentially revert the Pentagon back to its 2016 policy, which opened the military to most transgender men and women near the end of former President Barack Obama’s administration. Biden, who backed that policy at that time, had pledged last year as a presidential candidate to quickly kill the policy, labelling it discriminatory.

The order comes as new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star Army general, took the Pentagon’s reins on Friday. The Pentagon will take immediate action to make certain the policy allows people who identify as transgender are eligible to serve in the military, Austin said in a statement issued Monday following the ban reversal.

“I fully support the President’s direction that all transgender individuals who wish to serve in the United States military and can meet the appropriate standards shall be able to do so openly and free from discrimination,” he said.

Recruits might be able to serve in their self-identified gender when they meet the standards to join the military and all medically necessary transition related care allowed by law will be available to all service members, according to the statement.

It was not immediately clear Monday how long the Pentagon would need before it would start accepting new transgender service members. Experts said last summer that the Pentagon could reverse the policy in just 30 days.

The ban’s end could result in a rush to recruiting offices throughout the country for transgender men and women who have long sought to serve, said Nicolas Talbott, a transgender man who was among the first military hopefuls to file a lawsuit against Trump and the federal government to end the policy.

"We're are all very excited we are all very eager,” Talbott said last week. “We're right on the edge of our seats ... and I know a lot of folks are chomping at the bit to run right to their nearest recruiter's office.”

Talbott plans to re-enter ROTC training, which he was forced to leave in 2019 after the ban was implemented and hopes to serve as an Army or Air Force intelligence officer.

“I’m thrilled and relieved that I and other transgender Americans can now be evaluated solely on our ability to meet military standards. I look forward to becoming the best service member I can be,” Talbott said in a statement after the ban was lifted.

The Pentagon’s ban on transgender men and women enlisting in the military went into effect in April 2019, nearly two years after Trump’s surprise July 2017 Twitter announcement that he would no longer allow transgender persons to serve in the military “in any capacity.”

That announcement, which caught the Pentagon including all the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff off guard, resulted months later in the Defense Department policy — known as the “Mattis plan” for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who crafted it. The policy bars almost any transgender men and women from joining the military.

That plan was long delayed as transgender service members and military hopefuls filed a series of lawsuits that resulted in preliminary injunctions halting the Pentagon for implementing its plan. In January 2019, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision removed those preliminary injunctions, allowing the Defense Department to implement its ban

The Pentagon long insisted its policy was not a blanket ban because of its protections for those transgender service members who came out after the 2016 policy and a waiver process that could allow some transgender people to join the military.

But the policy barred nearly all people diagnosed with gender dysphoria – described by the American Psychiatric Association as “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.” It did allow people to enlist with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria who had doctor certification that they had remained stable in their biological sex for 36 months. It disqualified all people who had medically transitioned their sex.

The uniformed leaders of all the military services in recent years told lawmakers that they had seen no evidence that transgender service members disrupted unit cohesion, one the Pentagon’s primary justifications for implementing its ban. Defense Department officials claimed to have data confirming that assertion, however they have never made it public.

One of the lawyers involved in the lawsuits seeking the end of the transgender ban said last week that she too had never seen any supporting evidence from the Pentagon that transgender men and women cause harm to the military.

The Mattis plan provide no statistics to back its position that transgender persons should not serve in the military, said Jennifer Levi, a director for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, or GLAD, a legal group that represents gay and transgender individuals.

“There's nothing in there that has shown at all that transgender people who meet military standards can't contribute at very high levels,” she said. “We haven't seen anything [from the Defense Department] that supports the ban.”

The policy reversal did not please everyone. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, who directs the conservative Heritage Foundation's National Defense Center, said Monday that ending the Trump-era policy would harm the military's combat readiness.

Spoehr said Biden's decision was based on "political correctness."

"By overturning the current policy regarding individuals suffering from gender dysphoria, the commander in chief is signaling that he is more interested in social engineering than safeguarding the health and well-being of American service members," he said in a statement.

The Pentagon under Trump also labeled needed health care for transgender men and women too costly. The Pentagon said last year that it spent about $8 million on health care for transgender service members between 2016 and 2019 from its about $50 billion annual health care budget.

It remains unclear precisely how many service members on active duty identify as transgender. A 2016 Defense Department survey, which was anonymous, found about 9,000 service members identified themselves as transgender men or women, but slightly more than 1,000 between 2016 and 2019 took the steps to openly serve in the preferred gender, officials said.

Talbott said he was excited not just for himself but for the future of LGBTQ rights.

“We’ve already seen [Biden] issuing orders in favor of LGBTQ rights, so that's very promising. This is, hopefully, an enormous step in the right direction,” he said.

Gay and transgender advocates are also hopeful that the policy can be reverted very quickly. Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a research institutes that studies LGBTQ inclusion in the military, has said the Mattis plan left the groundwork for the Pentagon to completely end its ban within one month.

He issued a memo last summer detailing precisely how the military could reopen service to transgender men and women within 30 days of Biden ending the ban.

“Very little needs to be done administratively to finally end discrimination against transgender troops, and we look forward to the arrival of fully inclusive policy very soon,” Belkin said last week.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., praised Biden for keeping his promise to overturn the ban.

“Today, by reversing the harmful, discriminatory policy of the previous administration, President Biden has ensured that thousands of transgender service members will be able to serve as their authentic selves,” Smith said in a statement Monday. “The Biden administration’s commitment to these brave service members – and their fair treatment under the law – underscores the immense value of each and every man and woman who serves or will serve our country in uniform, regardless of their sex assigned at birth.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., another member of the House Armed Services Committee, called the ban reversal “the right thing to do.”

“The military services need qualified personnel, including our brave transgender service members, who put their lives on the line to defend the homeland and our freedom. We owe them respect and appreciation in return, including respect for their gender identity or expression,” she said in a statement Monday.

Speier intends to add a provision in the defense policy bill to make a nondiscrimination policy permanent, according to the statement.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com Twitter: @@CDicksteinDC

kenney.caitlin@stripes.com Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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