Momentum grows to scrap Pentagon's ban on transgender troops

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There is renewed energy on Capitol Hill to lift the Defense Department's ban on transgender troops.

Lawmakers view recent steps by the Pentagon and some of the armed services to expand protections for gay and lesbian troops as an opportunity to do away with the decades-old prohibition on allowing transgender troops to serve openly.

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They are also taking note of other societal changes in calling for the ban on service by transgender trips to be lifted.

“In politics, I think it’s always appropriate to take advantage of timing. Whether it’s taking down the Confederate flag or creating equality in the military for transgender persons,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). 

She plans to introduce legislation next month that calls on the Pentagon to immediately grant anti-discrimination protection for all service members, and their dependents, who identify as transgender.

The bill, which is still being drafted, would also direct the Defense secretary to hammer out new policies for transgender troops, from regulations about their uniforms to what treatments would be covered under Tricare, the military's healthcare system.

Separately, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) on Thursday lead a group of nearly 20 House members in a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter that urged him to do away with the policy.

“People should be evaluated on performance, not gender," Honda, who has a transgender granddaughter, said in a statement

Any effort to do away with the prohibition is likely to face stiff resistance in a GOP-controlled Congress.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has said the decision on the ban should be left to the Pentagon.

The department “needs to look at a variety of policies. As long as they look at it objectively, based on what’s best for the security interests of the country, then we’ll oversee or review what they do,” he told The Hill.

“When there’s a sense that there’s some extraneous social or political agenda … people get concerned,” Thornberry added.

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“The administration policy should always be a basis for our discussion,” he said.

Transgender activists say that, while they are heartened by the increased focus on the issue, they aren’t about to pin their hopes on Capitol Hill.

They note that, while lawmakers led the charge in the 2011 repeal of "Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Clinton-era law that prohibited gay and lesbian people from serving openly in the military, the transgender ban is department-level policy.

“Everyone in advocacy believes this needs to be a Pentagon thing,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. She added that the legislative push could wind up being an “education and advocacy tool.”

She pointed to recent moves by the DOD, as well as the Air Force and Army to expand protections for LGBT service members, as evidence that many Pentagon leaders can “feel the dominoes falling.”

Hopes for lifting the ban grew days after Carter took office and signaled that a person's gender identity shouldn’t factor into if he or she can serve in the armed forces.

“I don't think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them,” he said.

The White House quickly endorsed Carter’s remarks.

“The president agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Earlier this month Carter announced sexual orientation would be added to the military's anti-discrimination policy.

And just last week, the White House hosted a handful of transgender service members and veterans at its gay pride event.

Keisling said the comments, along with last week’s event, show that there's “an understanding in the administration that it’s all right with the civilian powers that be to end the ban.”

“The Pentagon’s a trickier place than that, however,” she added.

A DOD spokesman said there is “no ongoing review to specifically address the Department's transgender policy.”

However, in February, the Pentagon started a “routine, periodic review” of its medical guidelines that specifically prohibit service by transgender people, he added. The assessment, last conducted in 2011, is slated to wrap up some time next year.

“My sense is that all eyes are on the secretary of Defense. He’s the center of gravity on this,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center.

He predicted that Carter ultimately would decide to trash the prohibition, noting that the influential American Medical Association recently concluded there is “no medically valid reason” to keep transgender persons out of the military.

Both he and Keisling said it was “inevitable” that the ban would be lifted, though neither would hazard to guess when it might happen.

For her part, Speier isn’t willing to sit back and wait for the DOD to act.

“I don’t necessarily think one branch of government has the lock on good policy,” said Speier, who has a transgender nephew. 

She said her staff has been in contact with two Senate offices about introducing a companion bill in that chamber, though she declined to identify them.

“The time is right, so let’s do what the right thing is," Speier said.