The US Army has provided some mild relief for its estimated 15,000 transgender soldiers by issuing a directive that takes away local military commanders' power to discharge service members over their sexuality, and moving that power into the hands of high-ranking civilian officials.
The decision signals that the Army is slowly retreating from its prohibitive medical policies, which classify "transsexualism" as a "psychosexual condition," which has for decades barred trans people from serving in the military in any capacity. It is also reminiscent of steps taken in the final phases of the Army's controversial "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, which blocked gay people from service until it was repealed in 2011.
Sue Fulton, a former Army captain and president of SPARTA, an organization of former or current LGBT service members, welcomed the announcement, with some reservation, saying it provides some relief for commanders "from the woefully outdated medical policy from the 70s."
"Based on what we hear from our transgender service members, their commanders generally support them, but are confused about what actions to take," Fulton told VICE News. "In reality, this will allow the Army to review cases and hopefully be able to retain good service members who are doing their jobs, who may happen to be transgender. It remains to be seen how this will actually occur in practice."
The policy doesn't cover the some 9,000 trans people serving in the Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps, she added.
Under the Army's new measure, which came into effect Friday, all discharges of trans soldiers will have to be signed off by the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, which handles matters related to employment and human resources.
In the last stages of the Don't Ask Don't Tell in 2010, the Army also directed all reviews of dismissals of gay soldiers to the Defense Department's top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, and service secretaries. This essentially slowed down further discharges based on a person's sexual orientation until the Army decided on its next move — which was to ultimately revoke the policy.
While the move is seen as a movement away from the Army's 1970s-era medical directive that lists trans people among those diagnosed with, "exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias," a department spokesman on Monday reiterated to VICE News that its "policies related to separation of transgender soldiers have not changed."
"Under those policies, a soldier diagnosed with a physical or mental condition, including gender dysphonia, may be separated if that condition potentially interferes with assignment to or performance of duty," spokesman Wayne Hall stated. "This message, and related process, are being implemented to ensure consistency in the application of existing Department of Defense and Army policies."
But Fulton said the Army simply may not wish to disclose other reasons behind the implementation of the measure.
"The Army will tell you that this action is to ensure consistent application of the regulations across commands," she said. "In my opinion, it is also possible — even likely — that this action will encourage commanders to use their discretion to keep good soldiers who happen to be transgender. That's good for the Army."
Fulton noted that the decision to issue the directive has come less than two weeks after Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter indicated some support for transgender personnel in remarks made during a visit to troops stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Fulton said she hopes that it signals a step toward the military conducting a full review of its policies on transgender service members.
Last March, an independent commission led by a former US surgeon general found that there "is no compelling medical reason" for the Army to prevent transgender people from joining service and that "the ban itself is an expensive, damaging, and unfair barrier to health care access for the approximately 15,450 transgender personnel who serve currently in the active, Guard and reserve components."
"We need an overall solution for all the services that comports with current medical practice and enhances military readiness," Fulton said. "If military leaders care about medical ethics, proper medical practice, and the troops — and I believe they do — they'll fix this policy."
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