Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on ABC News Sunday suggested he's open to reviewing the US military's ban on openly transgender soldiers.
The announcement was the first major indication that the military might take another step in favor of LGBT rights after the dismantlement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) in 2011.
Hagel, however, was cautious in his wording. He said lifting the ban on transgender service has a medical component to it that demands serious attention. As a result, he indicated that he's open to a review, but he did not stake a side on actually lifting the ban.
Yes, the US military still bans openly transgender soldiers
President Barack Obama could lift the ban without Congress through regulatory changes
The repeal of DADT lifted the ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers. It did not, however, end discrimination against openly transgender individuals.
As a recent report from the Palm Center explained, the US military gives commanders complete discretion to separate transgender individuals from the military without a medical review, regardless of the soldier's ability to perform or the degree of medical risk.
The ban is not written into law; it's instead enforced through the military's medical regulations. So President Barack Obama and his administration could lift the ban without Congress through regulatory changes.
The ban is based on outdated medical rationale
The military defends the ban through medical rationale that essentially deems transgender soldiers as having an untreatable mental health condition.
Much of the health-care community, including the American Psychiatric Association, considers that view outdated, since gender dysphoria can be successfully treated with hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery. The Palm Center report argues there isn't a "compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service."
The report also concluded that kicking out transgender soldiers for medical reasons is in stark contrast to the serious medical support the military provides to soldiers with other medical and psychological conditions. That discrepancy remains, the report explained, even though medical treatments for transgender individuals are no more complicated than other types of treatments the military deploys for other soldiers, including steroid regimens and some elective procedures like Botox treatment and cosmetic plastic surgery.
Several countries already let transgender soldiers serve
The ban differentiates the US from some of its international allies. Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom allow transgender soldiers to openly serve, according to the Palm Center report. Some of those countries deployed their armed forces side-by-side with US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lifting the ban could allow thousands of transgender soldiers to serve without fear
Ending the ban on transgender service could have a major impact on the military and thousands of soldiers. The Palm Center's report estimated that there are 15,450 transgender soldiers in the US military today.
So lifting the ban could allow thousands of soldiers to serve as their full identities and potentially benefit the military. It could, in other words, accomplish exactly what Hagel suggested when he spoke of a potential review of the policy: "I'm open to those assessments, because, again, I go back to the bottom line. Every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it."