President Joe Biden signed an executive order Monday lifting a Trump administration policy that largely banned transgender individuals from joining the U.S. military and prevented service members from transitioning while in uniform.
The executive order overturns a March 2018 memorandum issued by President Donald Trump that restricted military service for transgender individuals, and immediately halts any current involuntary separations, discharges or denials of reenlistment over gender identity concerns.
In signing the order, Biden said, "All Americans who are qualified to serve in the armed forces of the United States should be able to serve."
"The All-Volunteer Force thrives when it is composed of diverse Americans who can meet the rigorous standards for military service, and an inclusive military strengthens our national security," Biden noted in a White House fact sheet on the order.
In July 2017, 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."
That announcement overturned a decision in 2016 by President Barack Obama and then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter to allow transgender personnel to serve openly in their preferred gender.
In 2018, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis published a policy that allowed currently serving transgender individuals to remain in the military but barred those who had not transitioned from changing gender. The policy also prevented those diagnosed with gender dysphoria -- a mental health condition diagnosed in some transgender individuals that is characterized by acute stress and anxiety over their gender identity -- from serving or joining the military.
At the time, Defense Department officials cited the medical costs of treating transgender individuals and the impact they might have on unit cohesion.
In his order, Biden cited a 2016 study that found allowing transgender individuals to serve openly would have a "minimal impact on military readiness and health care costs."
In 2018, the service chiefs testified that they were not aware of any problems in the ranks with openly serving transgender personnel. That sentiment was reiterated in 2019 by Army Gen. Mark Milley during his confirmation hearing to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I don't believe there's anything inherent in anyone's identity to prevent them from serving in the military," he said. "It's about standards, not an identity."
And last week, during his confirmation hearing to become defense secretary, Lloyd Austin agreed.
"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.
On Monday, Austin pledged to implement the changes within the next 60 days, as required by the order.
"The United States Armed Forces are in the business of defending our fellow citizens from our enemies, foreign and domestic. I believe we accomplish that mission more effectively when we represent all our fellow citizens. I also believe we should avail ourselves of the best possible talent in our population, regardless of gender identity," Austin said. "This is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do."
As a candidate, Biden had promised to reverse the policy; on Monday, advocates for the LGBTQ community praised the move.
"I am elated that the approximately 15,000 transgender service members proudly serving across the globe can rest easier knowing that their service to our nation is seen, valued and that they can continue to serve as their authentic selves," said Emma Shinn, a Marine Corps captain who serves as president of Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All, or SPARTA.
The Trevor Project, an organization that focuses on suicide prevention and support for LGBTQ youth, said the new policy will have a huge impact on young people who are gender fluid.
"This discriminatory ban was cruel and unnecessary from its inception, and we hope that its reversal sends a clear message to transgender and nonbinary youth everywhere that they should be proud of who they are, that they are deserving of our country's respect, and that they have the right to serve with honor," said Amit Paley, CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project.
Conservative groups said they will continue to object to a policy that allows those with gender dysphoria to serve.
"By overturning the current policy on service by transgender individuals with gender dysphoria, the administration is signaling it favors political correctness over military readiness. It is unfortunate that 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," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense.
"Military service is inherently stressful," Spoehr added. "The suicide rate in the military exceeds the general population's. It would be immoral to place individuals at higher risk from mental injury -- such as those suffering from gender dysphoria -- in a situation where they are likely to experience extraordinary stress. This decision will contribute to a reduced level of military readiness in our armed forces, which are already hard-pressed to defend American interests around the globe."
Under the new order, the DoD and Department of Homeland Security must review all directives, orders and policies to ensure that they align with the mandate, and they must identify and review the records of service members who have been involuntarily separated, discharged or denied reenlistment.
Nicolas Talbott, a plaintiff and transgender male who is party to one of several lawsuits that were filed against the Trump administration over the 2018 policy, told Military.com he plans to reenroll in the Army ROTC while pursuing a doctoral degree, adding that he would like to enter the military intelligence field.
With the pending reversal of the policy, Talbott is again considering the U.S. Army as a career.
"I don't want to say [serving in the military as a transgender person is] 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.