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Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter last week announced that transgender individuals will now be able to serve openly in the U.S. armed forces.
It marks another step in the recent transformation of the country’s military forces that includes an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the opening of combat roles to women and the appointment of a gay Secretary of the Army. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) began in 2011 and was based on sexual orientation, but it did not address the prohibition on transgender military service. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) found that transgender Americans are twice as likely to serve in the military as the general population.
Reservist Rudy Akbarian, who is a Los Angeles LGBT Center staff member, enlisted in the Army in 2011 as a woman, but medically transitioned three years ago. Akbarian identifies as transgender and technically should have been discharged.
“I just had a really cool chain of command,” he said.
Akbarian said Carter’s decision was “fantastic and amazing” but that there might still be issues. He said throughout boot camp they are trained that genders do not exist, they are all just soldiers. But their bathrooms and showers are still segregated by gender.
“That has been my only negative,” Akbarian said. “I still use the female bathrooms even though I’ve had surgery and have facial hair. That will be the trickiest part.”
He said his unit knows his history and doesn’t treat him differently, but when they team up with other units and he goes to take a shower, some give him a hard time and won’t let him in.
“It becomes really awkward,” he said. “The type of people that enlist aren’t always as open-minded as I’d like. Some soldiers will cause problems.”
But he thinks it will get better and easier for transitioning soldiers because they won’t have to hide anymore.
“I know [harassment and bullying] will go away,” he said.
He explained that in the military, you can judge someone on the surface based on it being different or based on religious beliefs, but when soldiers spend time with one another on missions, they become family.
The same happened to Akbarian who hid his transition until “the point it was extremely obvious.” He said there were high-ranking soldiers who were “really against” his transition at that point.
“And now they’re like, ‘Dude, you’re one of the best soldiers we have,”’ he said.
The new policy announced last week also establishes a construct by which service members may transition genders while serving. The new policy will establish standards for medical care and responsibilities for commanders to develop and implement guidance and training.
“This is the right thing to do for our people and for the force,” Carter said. “We’re talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission.”
Los Angeles LGBT Center CEO Lorri L. Jean said the announcement is “another historic step” in the fight for full equality for the LGBT community.
“Of course, transgender people – thousands of them – have served in the military for years, but they could only do so by living a lie,” she said in a statement. “Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s decision to end the ban acknowledges the outrageous hypocrisy of such a policy, one that meant service members who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their country were not accorded the basic human decency of living openly and authentically as equal members of the armed forces.”
She rejected that the decision will have negative effects on overall “military readiness,” “national security” and “troop morale.”
“[That argument] has been the history of those who favor reactionary policies in the military.” she said. “These were the same words used to justify segregation of African American troops, the exclusion of openly gay and lesbian soldiers, and the indignities of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ Those scare tactics were untrue in all those instances, and are no truer today.”
Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D-Los Angeles), a former active duty officer who is a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, said a person’s ability to serve is not determined by gender identity and there is no compelling medical or military rationale to restrict their service.
“Every day our military is tasked with keeping Americans safe and defending our nation’s ideals and it relies on the bravery and heroism of those individuals who choose to serve. Allowing transgender individuals to serve openly and access the medical care they need will only strengthen our military readiness,” he said.
The policy will be phased in during a one-year period, according to the Pentagon. Effective immediately, service members will no longer be involuntarily separated, discharged or denied reenlistment solely on the basis of gender identity. Service members currently on duty will be able to serve openly.
By Oct.1, the Department of Defense will create and distribute a commanders’ training handbook, medical protocol and guidance for changing a service member’s gender in the Defense Eligibility Enrollment System (DEERS). The services will be required to provide medically necessary care and treatment to transgender members according to medical protocol and guidance.
Over the course of the next year, the department will finalize training plans and implementation guidance, revise regulations and forms, and train the force, including commanders, human resources specialists, recruiters and service members.
After one year, the services will begin allowing transgender individuals to join the armed forces, assuming they meet accession standards. The full policy must be completely implemented by July 1, 2017.
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