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Mattis delays Pentagon’s decision to allow transgender recruits six more months

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Germany, June 28, 2017. (Michaela Rehle/ Reuters)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has delayed a plan approved by the Obama administration a year ago to begin allowing transgender recruits to join the U.S. military, the Pentagon said Friday night, providing the Joint Chiefs of Staff with a six-month reprieve that they requested.

The decision was made on the eve of a deadline set a year ago by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The services can now delay processing transgender recruits until Jan. 1, after they “review their accession plans and provide input on the impact to the readiness and lethality of our forces,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said.

The current transgender policy, signed by Carter on June 30, 2016, banned the services from involuntarily separating people in the military who came out as transgender, and allowed the individuals to begin receiving medical care Oct. 1. But it also gave the Pentagon a year to determine how to begin processing new transgender recruits who want to serve.

[Previous coverage: The Pentagon’s ban on transgender service just fell, and the details are complicated]

The decision will almost certainly prove unpopular with advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, who already had waited through a lengthy Pentagon view process that concluded last year. Opponents to transgender people serving, meanwhile, will likely see the delay as a win against political correctness and as an opportunity for the military to further prepare themselves for transgender recruits if it is later approved.

The policy signed a year ago said that “not later than July 1, 2017,” the Pentagon would update its medical standards to account for people who have a history of gender dysphoria, the medical term for wanting to transition gender. It added that the condition was not necessarily disqualifying if a doctor certified that a prospective recruit was “stable without clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of function for 18 months.”

The policy also required transgender recruits to complete all medical treatment associated with their gender transition, be stable in their new gender for 18 months. Those guidelines were crafted with assistance from advocates for transgender people, such as the Palm Center, a think tank promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender concerns.

Two defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested the six-month delay in order to continue studying opening up military service to transgender recruits, as opposed to allowing service members who already were serving to begin identifying as transgender. That request was first reported last month by The Associated Press, which also said that the Air Force and Army originally wanted a two-year delay.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said June 19 in an appearance at the National Press Club that there is no issue with transgender service members who are already serving, and no ongoing review could affect their ability to serve. But he acknowledged that there were “some issues identified” by some of the service chiefs with allowing in transgender recruits, and that they wanted them resolved “before we move forward.”

Carter repealed the ban on transgender military service after a long, internal review that fell behind schedule as military officials struggled to reach a consensus. It followed Congress repealing the decades-old policy banning gay people from serving openly in 2011, and Carter lifting in 2015 a ban on women serving in the infantry and other ground-combat assignments.

Before Carter’s decision, the Pentagon considered transgender people to be sexual deviants who had to be ousted from service. In 2015, it moved the authority to discharge to higher-ranking commanders, making it tougher to force out service members who came out as transgender.

There are about 2,500 transgender service members among the 1.3 million active-duty members of the military and an additional 1,500 among reserve units, according to a Rand Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon and published last year.

Critics of allowing transgender military service have said that it could harm the military’s ability to do its job and would cost the Pentagon some extra money for medical care. One outspoken opponent, Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, said in a new report published this week that the changes the Obama administration made to transgender service were administrative in nature and can be overturned.

“Confusion about gender identity requires family compassion and competent psychological treatment, not special civil rights status and extraordinary accommodations that are not offered when other physical or mental conditions affecting personal readiness are involved,” the report said.