Troops Still Await Action on Military Transgender Policy After Flurry of Executive Orders

Nicolas Talbott
Nicolas Talbott, a transgender male, dropped out of Army ROTC at Kent State University when the 2018 policy went into effect. (Photo: Courtesy of Nicolas Talbott)

An executive order signed Wednesday by President Joe Biden barring discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity does not apply to U.S. military personnel. But advocates for transgender service members say they expect that a Defense Department policy that puts limits on transgender troops will be overturned soon.

As a candidate for president, Biden promised that on "Day One" of his presidency, he would roll back a Trump administration policy efffectively banning most transgender individuals from joining the military and placed restrictions on service members who had not transitioned.

On Wednesday, he issued an executive order -- one of 17 signed that day -- directing federal agencies to enforce laws that prohibit sex discrimination, including sexual orientation or gender identity, in employment, housing, education, health care and elsewhere.

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But the order did not reverse the DoD policy implemented in 2018 barring transgender troops who have not yet transitioned and those diagnosed with gender dysphoria from service.

Aaron Belkin, a political science professor at San Francisco State University and director of the Palm Center, a public policy think tank that focuses on LGBT issues, said the fact that Biden did not have a confirmed defense secretary on his first day in office likely contributed to the absence of an announcement.

"I believe [Biden] was sincere and had every intention of [repealing the transgender ban] on Day One," Belkin said. "All the signals are pointing in the same direction, which is as soon as we have a secretary of defense, the military will move forward with an inclusive policy."

Biden's nominee for defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, said Tuesday in his confirmation hearing that he supports the president's plan to overturn the ban.

"I truly believe ... that if you're fit and you're qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve," Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In July 2017, President Donald Trump announced via Twitter that the U.S. government would no longer allow "transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military."

The announcement upended a 2016 decision by President Barack Obama and then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter to allow transgender personnel to serve openly in their preferred gender.

As a result of Trump's announcement, then-SecDef Jim Mattis published a policy in 2018 that barred transgender service members who had not yet transitioned, as well as those diagnosed with gender dysphoria, from serving.

The policy also barred prospective recruits with gender dysphoria from joining the military and effectively shuttered recruitment to people who have transitioned.

In instituting the 2018 policy, DoD officials said it was made out of concern for the medical costs of treating transgender troops and the impact on unit cohesion. They denied that the policy was a ban, saying transgender individuals could continue to serve, but gender dysphoria was a disqualifying condition for military service.

The DoD has not released data on the number of troops discharged under the 2018 policy. Belkin said he doesn't think the number is "very high," but added that the policy itself undermined military readiness by "applying separate standards to different people" and denying needed health services to the military transgender population.

The ban also hurt recruiting, he said.

"We can't know the number of trans troops who were banned, but folks who would otherwise have been eligible for recruiting were not eligible because of the ban," Belkin said.

Nicolas Talbott is a plaintiff in one of several lawsuits that were filed against the Trump administration. Talbott, a transgender male, dropped out of Army ROTC at Kent State University when the 2018 policy went into effect since it kept him from pursuing a commission, he said.

With the pending reversal of the policy, Talbott is again considering the U.S. Army as a career.

"I'm very excited to see the Biden administration keep their promise and overturn the transgender military ban, and I'm very hopeful that it's something they'll be able to do quickly," Talbott said.

He added that with thousands of transgender persons currently serving in the military -- the Palm Center puts the number at slightly more than 14,000 -- there haven't been issues and shouldn't be any problems once the policy is rescinded.

"I don't want to say it's not a big deal, because for people like me, it's our entire lives. But it's just not going to be a huge issue like the ban implied it is," Talbott said.

 -- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.  

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