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The Air Force just took a big step in favor of transgender rights

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
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  1. The US Air Force on Thursday announced several changes that will make it more difficult to discharge openly serving transgender service members.
  2. The change will elevate the decision to discharge a trans person, who identifies with a gender different from the one assigned at birth, from low-level commanders to the director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency, placing higher-level scrutiny on dismissal decisions.
  3. The Air Force also said that someone's gender dysphoria, a state of emotional distress caused by how the gender someone was designated at birth conflicts with their gender identity, will need to interfere "with duty requirements — including potential deployment — or duty performance" to justify dismissal, which is unprecedented in the military.
  4. The move, particularly the second change, goes further than the Army's step earlier this year to require a high-ranking civilian official to oversee the dismissal of trans service members — but trans people will still be able to be dismissed over their gender identity, as is the general policy in the US military.

LGBT advocates praised the Air Force's change

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James testifies in Congress.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The American Military Partner Association, the nation's largest military organization for LGBT families, praised the Air Force's decision in a statement. But they also called for further review of the military's general policies, which ban openly serving trans service members.

"This is a huge step in the right direction for our transgender airmen and their families, but they are still threatened by outdated regulations preventing them from serving openly and honestly," AMPA President Ashley Broadway-Mack said. "We need [Defense] Secretary [Ash] Carter to order a comprehensive review of these outdated regulations. Transgender service members sacrifice so much for our nation, and they should be able to serve openly, honestly, and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. A service member's gender identity has nothing to do with the ability to get the job done."

The military still prohibits trans people from serving openly

The US military still allows the discharge of openly serving trans people. As a March 2014 report from the Palm Center explained, the ban allows commanders to dismiss trans individuals from the military without a medical review, regardless of the service member's ability to serve. As a result, trans people are forced to hide their true identities if they want to remain in the military.

The Air Force's policy change greatly curtails the military's general anti-trans policy by requiring the director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency to review decisions that someone's gender identity actually conflicts with their ability to serve. But the changes don't apply to the other armed service branches.

The Air Force's policy change greatly curtails the military's general anti-trans policy

Before the dismantlement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 2011, the military required the discharge of gay and lesbian soldiers to go through top Pentagon officials, which reportedly slowed the rate of that ban's enforcement.

The ban on trans service members, as with other forms of discrimination against trans people, is based on incorrect and outdated medical rationale. Many medical experts prior to the 1990s viewed trans people as having an untreatable mental health condition. But most medical experts today, including the American Psychiatric Association, agree that hormone therapy and other forms of care can treat trans people suffering from gender dysphoria.

The Obama administration could overturn the prohibition on trans individuals without congressional consent, since the ban is attached to regulations, not law. The White House and Defense Secretary Carter said in February that they're open to undoing the ban, although it's unclear what, if any, reviews of the broader policy are underway.

Watch: Life as a transgender woman