US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on Sunday that he is open to ongoing review of the Pentagon’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military.
Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Hagel told Martha Raddatz that the military’s transgender ban “continually should be reviewed.”
“I’m open to that,” he continued. “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.”
Hagel added that transgender issues are “an area that we’ve not defined enough.”
When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s longtime discriminatory policy of banning LGBT individuals from serving openly, was repealed in 2011, some LGBT rights advocates called on the military to extend equal treatment to transgender troops and aspirants. But the Pentagon remains silent on the issue, saying only that “there are no plans to change the department’s policy.”
The issue was brought to the fore by Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, the soldier convicted of leaking classified military and diplomatic documents, some of them detailing US war crimes, to the whistleblower website Wikileaks. Sentenced to 35 years behind bars, Manning is transitioning into a woman and is fighting to be treated like the gender that matches his identity.
Transgender rights advocates welcomed the defense secretary’s remarks.
“If the secretary were able to meet and talk with the trans service members I’ve met, he’d understand the answer is self-evident,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told the Associated Press. “These are amazing people who serve even though they must hide a basic part of who they are.”
In March, an independent commission led by former US Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders concluded that there “is no compelling medical reason” to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military.
In the first-ever global ranking of LGBT inclusion in the military, the United States placed a dismal 40th out of 103 nations. Other nations, including Canada, Spain, New Zealand, Israel, Britain, the Netherlands, Thailand and Australia, welcome transgender troops into the ranks of their armed forces.
A panel convening at San Francisco State University has estimated that more than 15,000 transgender individuals are currently serving in the US armed forces. The researchers on the panel said that transgender people are overrepresented in the military because many female-to-male trans people enlist for the hyper-masculine environment, while many male-to-female trans people join in an attempt to suppress their femininity, the New York Times reports.