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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Could End Military Ban on Trans Soldiers Before Leaving Office

The Defense Secretary and other military officials have said they are "open" to allowing transgender officers to serve.
Photo by Akira Suemori/AP

While the military's acceptance of LGBT service members has progressed by leaps in recent years — first with the end of its Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy and later with the extended same-sex military spousal privileges that came with the Supreme Court's strike down of the Defense of Marriage Act — it is still struggling to decide how it should deal with transgender soldiers.

But that could all change before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel leaves office.


Currently, the US military bans transgender people from serving in the military in any capacity, and has in place a policy in which being transgender is categorized as a "psychosexual condition" that is bundled together with other "conditions," such as "transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias."

Over the past year, the language that officials have used in discussing that ban has pointed toward the possibility of change.

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Hagel, who announced his resignation last month and will leave office when his replacement is confirmed by Congress, told ABC News in May that he was "open" to reviewing the military's policy on trans service members.

"I do think it continually should be reviewed," Hagel said. "I'm open to that."

"Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it," he added.

The Secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, told USA Today earlier this month that the policy was "likely to come under review in the next year or so."

"From my point of view, anyone who is capable of accomplishing the job should be able to serve," James said.

Despite those comments, the Pentagon said in a statement to VICE News today that, "no review of the policy has been ordered" and pointed to Hagel's later comments to reporters published in the Washington Post that quoted him as saying he had "not asked for a specific task force," but wants to "hear more from individuals who are close to the issue."


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"DoD regulations don't allow transgender individuals to serve in the US military, based upon medical standards for military service," Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, said in the department's statement today.

Advocates seeking change to the Pentagon's transgender rules contend that the DoD's medical definition of transgender is out of date. They also say that Hagel has a unique opportunity to change policy in a way that wasn't possible with issues like Don't Ask Don't Tell, and he could do it before he leaves office.

Paula Neira, a member of the military advisory council for the LGBT military organization OutServ, left the military 23 years ago after fighting in Desert Storm to deal with the issue of gender identity.

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"The changes that would need to be made are minor, they're not complex, we can do this," Neira told VICE News Wednesday. "Whereas DADT took almost 20 years for repeal, this situation, because there is no law in play … could be changed with the stroke of a pen. It is fully in the purview of the Secretary of Defense."

"But the military is a very conservative institution," she added. "It doesn't change quickly."

In practice, the changes would include making it possible for soldiers to change their names, having separate transgender markers on official paperwork, and officers being issued with uniforms appropriate for their gender. That could all happen if Hagel decides to change the policy and update the definition of what "transgender" means.


"The ultimate thing is to change the medical regulations that act as a bar to transgender service," Neira said. "They are a half century out of date, they are not supported by medical science, it is not evidence-based practice, and there is certainly no military reason for it. It needs to be changed."

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The American Psychiatric Association has removed gender identity disorder from its list of mental disorders in its most recent classification guide, the DSM-V, saying that gender nonconformity should not be classified as a mental disorder in itself — only if an individual is clinically distressed over gender dysphoria. Significantly, it is also not included in the "sexual dysfunctions," part of the DSM-V.

In spite of the military's outdated language and classification of gender nonconformity, some sectors of the forces have sought to improve their treatment of transgender individuals. The Veterans Health Administration began an effort to offer better treatment and care for trans veterans back in 2011, issuing a policy to better train staff to ensure trans veterans received good treatment, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. The VHA still will not pay for gender reassignment surgery, however.

A March report issued by the Palm Center, a think tank at the University of California Santa Barbara, estimated there are some 15,000 transgender service members in the military. Neira said since acceptance of LGBT individuals is so widespread outside of the military today, many young soldiers are already confiding in some of their colleagues and continuing to work successfully with them.


"From a combat unit perspective … as we're faced with having a leaner military, you certainly want your best people to be in it," Neira said. "Some of the best people are going to be transgender individuals. You shouldn't be removing that kind of talent just because of ignorance and bigotry."

The Palm Center report concluded that allowing transgender soldiers to serve was consistent with military rules and would not harm any aspect of the military. The team that produced the report included a former US Surgeon General and a Rear Admiral of the US Coast Guard.

At least 18 other countries already allow transgender soldiers in the military.

"In the short-term, the next step is [conducting] the study Secretary Hagel said he was open to," Neira said. "It's an unfinished promise to take a look at this issue, and it hasn't happened."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen