This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel caused a bit of a stir last weekend when he said that the US military's ban on transgender soldiers "continually should be reviewed" during an appearance on ABC's The Week.
In addition to reminding everyone that Sunday talk shows aren't just several hours of teeth gnashing and inhuman wailing, Hagel raised a few eyebrows among LGBT advocacy organizations, as his remarks come in the wake of a March report issued by the Palm Center that estimated some 15,000 transgender people are surreptitiously serving in the armed forces right now in addition to 130,000 or so trans veterans in the population at large.
But does Hagel's vague promise to take another look at the issue — coupled with his forthright declaration that "every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it" — mean the Pentagon is actually going to change its policies?
One encouraging sign came Wednesday when military officials announced they were considering a request from Chelsea Manning, the former intelligence officer charged with leaking troves of classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010, to be transferred to a civilian prison for gender treatment therapy.
Indeed, the latest report suggests Hagel has already approved the request and it's just a question of working out the logistics. More broadly, transgender advocates and military observers I spoke to are actually quite optimistic about the prospects for reform, even if the timeline remains cloudy at best.
"When you are talking about an issue as potentially inflammatory as transgender people serving in the US military, I don't think you step out there unless you mean it," said Allyson Robinson, policy director for the military LGBT activist organization SPART*A and a retired army captain. "I don't think it's worth it unless you really intend to go there."
Hagel has a history of saying exactly what he means — back in his days as a Republican senator, he was a pain in the ass for neocons in the George W. Bush administration, constantly questioning the rationale for the invasion of Iraq and lending a bipartisan sheen to progressive criticism of Bush's foreign policy.
If Hagel is serious about letting trans people serve in the military, he's on the side of science.
"What our commission found was that in many instances, transgender people could serve with no problems," said retired Brigadier General Thomas Kolditz, currently a professor at Yale University who served on the panel that issued the March report. "They could serve honourably and well, they could deploy, they could fulfill all the requirements of military service."
In fact, US allies like Canada and Britain allow transgender troops to serve now, including in Middle East combat zones, and the Pentagon employs plenty of transgender civilian contractors who get deployed to foreign countries and seem to do just fine.
And whereas the demise of Don't Ask, Don't Tell — the shameful "compromise" President Bill Clinton reached with conservatives in the early 1990s that allowed gay people to serve as long as they lied about their sexuality — required an act of Congress, Hagel doesn't need the OK from lawmakers to tweak this Department of Defense policy.
This is a tricky moment for transgender inclusion, though, because the pressure of sequestration — the insane policy where federal lawmakers decided to take a hatchet to the budget in hopes of curbing the deficit — has the military looking to reduce its manpower rather than scrambling for new recruits.
There are also some legitimate medical issues (like the provision of hormone therapy on the frontlines, or in what Hagel called "austere locations") surrounding transgender troops that weren't a factor when Congress told the army to ditch its policy of banning openly gay soldiers.
Still, the writing is on the wall now, and Hagel is proving to be the worst nightmare of the far-right crowd that threatened to block his nomination last year to replace Bush holdover Robert Gates. His willingness to throw military tradition to the wayside could actually make for an impressive legacy, a sort of brightspot for an administration whose foreign policy has come under withering criticism from all corners.
And thanks to front-page coverage in Beltway outlets like the Washington Post — which recently profiled Landon Wilson, a Navy intelligence officer who was dismissed when his bosses realized he had once been female — the political class in DC has begun to take notice.
"This is going to be a lengthy process, but we all know how it's going to end," said Kolditz, the retired general. "It's going to end with greater acceptance and with modernized, medically sophisticated ways of viewing gender identity. There were so many doomsday scenarios during the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. People were convinced that good soldiers would be leaving in droves — there were all kinds of wildly speculative predictions that never came true. I suspect it would be the same with changes to transgender policy."
The final piece of the puzzle is another, pending Palm Center report (retired Major General Gale S. Pollock is leading that commission) that will offer practical guidance on how to implement a reversal of this silly policy. Once we have the nuts and bolts down, the only thing standing in the way is old-school bigotry, and even that has begun to fade away.
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