Biden Reverses Trump’s Transgender Military Ban

U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the US Pacific Command, speaks in front of US Marines in 2017.
Reuters/Jason Reed

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on January 25 reversing former President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender troops.

“President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” the White House said in a written statement. “Allowing all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform is better for the military and better for the country because an inclusive force is a more effective force. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do and is in our national interest.”

The move comes nearly four years after then-President Donald Trump first announced the discriminatory policy on Twitter in July 2017. Trump falsely claimed that trans people were unfit to serve openly because of high transition-related healthcare costs, and the ban went into effect in April of 2019. The military under the Trump administration insisted that the ban on trans troops did not represent a blanket ban on all transgender service members since some folks were exempt from the policy, but that notion was widely rejected because trans troops with gender dysphoria would have been disqualified unless they were already serving in accordance with the gender assigned to them at birth. Regardless of how the Trump administration tried to qualify the ban, it was a ban.

There are an estimated 15,000 trans service members in the military, according to National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association. Gay City News reported on how service members were dragged through a wildly chaotic policy rollout when the Trump administration sought to put the transgender ban into action. Gay City News contacted different branches of the military in the aftermath of the ban’s implementation and received a wide range of responses about how each branch applied the directive. Some branches were withholding details about how many service members were discharged, while others denied that any discharges took place. In interviews spokespersons representing different branches even stated that discharges of transgender service members were not being tracked at all.

Biden’s executive order drew praise from Emma Shinn, a captain in the Marine Corps who serves as president of SPART*A, which is a group of transgender service members and veterans.

“President Biden’s restoration of open service recognizes transgender service members as an integral part of our military and closes a dark chapter of history,” Shinn said in a written statement. “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.”

Shawn Skelly, a transgender woman who served in the US Navy from 1988 to 2008, said lifting the ban opens up possibilities for trans service members. Plus, she noted that this legislation shows that trans people are “equally capable” to serve alongside their cisgender colleagues. 

 “Service members have the opportunity to stay and be their true authentic selves,” said Skelly, who served during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era,  and left service early to start her gender transition. “Serving as less than I knew myself to be was a strain and distraction. ”

Kristen L. Rouse, an out lesbian US Army Veteran and founder of the New York City Veterans Alliance, also commended the new administration for nixing Trump’s anti-trans policy.

“Our military is harmed by hate and extremism, not differences in gender expression or gender identity. Today we celebrate the final end to the atrocious ban on transgender service,” Rouse said. “Like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before it, this policy placed a heavy, painful, and undue burden on transgender servicemembers and veterans who have shown time and time again their fitness for duty, their selflessness and patriotism, and their substantial contributions to the defense of this nation.” 

Lambda Legal and Modern Military Association of America (MMAA), which challenged the ban in court, expressed relief that the Biden administration nixed the policy.

“We look forward to turning the page on this dark chapter of our history and returning to the day when transgender people can once again serve their country openly, proudly, and equally,” Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings said in a written statement. This ban was a low-water mark for our country, which defied the military’s own judgment permitting open service, and its reversal marks a recommitment to our country’s most basic promise of equality for all.”

Some out trans veterans, however, made it clear that these policies are far too often dependent on which party is in the White House — and the toll that takes on transgender Americans.

“While I am grateful that President Biden has chosen to reverse the trans ban and that my trans siblings can serve openly, I am concerned at the way the policy has been swinging from left to right multiple times within a very short time period,” Camden Ador, a Navy veteran from Queens, told Gay City News. “Not only does this call into question certain facets of our democratic process, but it also puts unnecessary fear, anxiety, and emotional warfare on the transgender community. We are not a talking point for any politicians campaign, and the way this divisive issue has been publicized over the past 5 or 6 years leaving the transgender community, especially those who are actively serving or have the desire to serve, in a constant state of limbo, a constant state of fight mode, this is not a way for anyone to live. So I say, if Biden is serious about this executive order and this proclamation of equality for transgender people, then he must make this law bulletproof.

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