Military Diversity: The Crusade to Accept Transgender Servicemembers

Although Department of Defense regulations prohibit transgender individuals from joining the military, there are an estimated 15,500 transgender servicemembers currently serving in the U.S. military. Since the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” did not apply to the transgender community, the Department of Defense has recently taken steps to begin accepting transgender individuals into the military. History has shown that although Department of Defense policies are usually on the frontline in promoting diversity, the transition has not always been expeditious or simple.

Influences on Military Diversity

Members of the military have historically represented a cross section of society. As societal norms change and evolve, so do Department of Defense policies with regard to who can legally join the military. As a result of ever-changing societal norms, today’s military is more diverse than ever. The rank and the roles of servicemembers of various ethnicities, religions, and gender is greater than it ever was. However, efforts to decrease discrimination and increase the roles within the military’s diverse ranks continually evolves.

Advances in science and medicine also play a role in influencing diversity within the military. No better example of this exists than the Department of Defense policies regarding transgender individuals. The Department of Defense ban on allowing transgender individuals from joining the military is based on outdated medical reasons. In the past it was medically acceptable to classify transgender individuals with a psychological impairment or disorder. Relying on this medical stance, Department of Defense policies banned transgender individuals from joining the military.

Recently the medical community have changed its diagnostic criteria regarding transgender individuals. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has reclassified transgender or gender identity from a disorder to gender dysphoria, thereby taking it out of the realm of a mental illness. Additionally, the American Medical Association has now opined that there is no medical valid reason to exclude transgender individuals from joining the military.

Department of Defense Actions Promoting Transgender Service

Based upon outdated medical conclusions, Department of Defense policies prohibit openly transgender Americans from serving in the military. Despite the ban, there are currently an estimated 15,500 transgender individuals serving in the military. In the past, if a transgender servicemember was open about their gender identity, they were administratively separated from the military.

Due to medical changes in the diagnosis, as well as changes in societal norms, the Department of Defense has not only begun to review its current policies on banning transgender members from the military, it has also taken steps to recognize and keep those transgender individuals currently serving.

In 2015 each branch of the military issued directives that would change the discharge procedures for transgender servicemembers. The Army issued a directive that protected transgender servicemembers from being dismissed by mid-level officers by requiring the decision for discharge to be made by the Army’s most senior individual for personnel matters.

The Air Force stated that there was no outright grounds for discharging anyone with gender dysphoria or who identified as transgender, and that a person would only be subject to discharge from the Air Force if his or her condition interfered with their potential deployment or performance on active duty.

The Secretary of the Navy established new policies that required the Navy and the Marine Corps to forward all cases involving a diagnosis or history of gender dysphoria, individuals who identify themselves as transgender, or who have taken steps to externalize the condition, must be forwarded to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for a decision.

Given the different policies within each branch of the military, Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered that all decisions to dismiss troops with gender dysphoria would be handled by the Pentagon’s acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

A final review of the policy on the ban of transgender individuals joining the military is expected sometime in the spring of 2016. While the ban will most likely be lifted in the near future, history has shown that integrating individuals of various ethnicities, religion and gender into the military can take time and effort.

Historical Examples of Diversity

Although Department of Defense institutional policies promoting diversity can change overnight, in reality it often takes much longer for individuals within the institution to accept and adapt to those polices.

Although African Americans have fought in wars going back to the Revolutionary War, segregation and racial inequality in the military did not “officially” end until 1948 when President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which “officially” ended segregation and racial inequality in the military. In reality, arguments can and are made today that racial equality still does not exist in the military.

Additionally, although women have served in the U.S. military since 1775, the role of women in the military is constantly the subject of debate. Throughout time, women’s roles have continued to evolve and the gaps between men and women have narrowed. More recently, in December 2015, the Secretary of Defense stated that starting in 2016 all combat jobs would be open to women. Yet, while the integration of some women into combat billets has begun, there is still resistance by many within the Department of Defense to keep certain combat billets closed to women.

When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed in 2011 the military officially recognized gay, lesbians and bi-sexual servicemembers. With the recognition of same sex marriages there were issues regarding servicemembers who were stationed in states that did not recognize same sex marriages. Those issues have since been resolved. In 2015, approximately four years after “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed, Defense Secretary Ash Carter added sexual orientation to the list of nondiscrimination protections under the military’s equal opportunity program.

When it comes to opening the ranks to the transgender community, the Department of Defense is going to have to look at changing many existing regulations. For example regulations with regarding wearing the uniform, use of billeting and restroom facilities, grooming standards, and whether the military medicine will provide hormone replacement therapy or gender reassignment surgery. Additionally, what VA medical benefits will be available to transgender veterans?


The Department of Defense has long been on the frontline of promoting diversity within its ranks, history has shown achieving diversity within the military can take time constantly evolves as societal norms change. History has also shown diversity is best achieved when the focus is on an individual’s capability to accomplish the mission and not on the individual’s race, religion or gender.

This article appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of San Diego Lawyer. It is reposted with the permission of the San Diego County Bar Association


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