U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday announced the military would no longer discriminate against transgender individuals.
"Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender," Carter said during a press conference at the Pentagon.
"This is the right thing to do for our people and for the force," he added. "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."
Transgender people already serve in the military. Carter cited data from a RAND Corp. study commissioned by the Pentagon estimating that about 2,500 people out of approximately 1.3 million active-duty service members and about 1,500 out of about 825,000 reserve service members are transgender. RAND estimates the upper range to be about 7,000 active duty and 4,000 in the reserves.
"We have to have access to 100 percent of America's population for our all-volunteer forces to be able to recruit from among them the most highly qualified — and to retain them," Carter said. "Otherwise qualified service members can no longer be involuntarily separated, discharged, or denied re-enlistment or continuation of service just for being transgender. Our military, and the nation it defends, will be stronger."
The new policy, nearly a year in the making, comes five years after the military repealed its "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, which forced gay and lesbian service members to hide their sexual orientation or face discharge.
Carter said the Pentagon will issue a commander's guidebook with medical guidance, including gender-transition care, for transgender troops already in the military. Service members will be allowed to switch their gender on all personnel forms as well.
"Beginning in October, the services will begin training rank-and-file service members about the change. No later than a year from now, the military services will begin allowing transgender service members who meet all standards to openly join the military, provided that they are considered stable in their identified gender for 18 months, as certified by their doctor."
Immediately following Carter's announcement, Texas Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the policy is "the latest example of the Pentagon and the President prioritizing politics over policy."
"Our military readiness — and hence, our national security — is dependent on our troops being medically ready and deployable," Thornberry said. "The administration seems unwilling or unable to assure the Congress and the American people that transgender individuals will meet these individual readiness requirements at a time when our armed forces are deployed around the world."
In his announcement, Carter quoted Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who said, "The United States Army is open to all Americans who meet the standard, regardless of who they are. Embedded within our Constitution is that very principle, that all Americans are free and equal."