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How Can Transgender Americans Serve Openly in the Military?

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has some questions. Research can provide some answers.
(Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

A major milestone in transgender rights may be on the horizon. This week, Defense Secretary Ash Carter referred to the United States military's rules about transgender service members as being "outdated." Right now, Americans wishing to serve can't be open about their transgender identity. Technically, transgender Americans who are already serving can be kicked out if they're "discovered," although one anonymous senior official told the Associated Press that the military doesn't want to enforce that rule over the next six months.

Meanwhile, Carter has ordered that, for six months, a working group study the policy implications of allowing transgender folks to serve openly, as the AP first reported. Pressing questions include: What uniforms should people wear during different times of their transition? What transgender-related medical procedures should the military pay for? How much is all of this going to cost?

At least 18 countries—including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia—allow transgender citizens to serve openly in their armed forces.

As it turns out, suggested answers to most these questions already exist. There are plenty of examples and studies for the U.S. military to learn from; this isn't exactly an unprecedented move. After all, at least 18 countries—including France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia—allow transgender citizens to serve openly in their armed forces. Plus, as the AP noted, "the [U.S.] military has dealt with many similar questions as it integrated the ranks by race, gender and sexual orientation."

The Palm Center, a Los Angeles-based think tank, published last year its recommendations to the military for integrating openly transgender members based on the available research. Overall, the center—which studies gender and sexuality issues in the military—found that "formulating and implementing inclusive policy is administratively feasible and neither excessively complex nor burdensome." Sounds good to us. Below are some highlights from its recommendations:

  • Cover the cost of "medically necessary transition-related care." Once transgender service members get diagnosed by a doctor, the center recommends the military cover the costs of the member's transition plan, just like it would cover other diagnoses and treatments.
  • When transgender service members have a doctor's letter and have started their transitions, they should get military IDs that identify them by their target gender. And they should get a new picture, if necessary.
  • Where should people sleep and shower? In general, the center recommends that as soon as service members start socially transitioning—or "living in the other gender"—they should abide by the rules of their target gender. That includes living in the barracks, wearing the uniform, and undergoing the fitness tests required of their target gender.
  • What's all this going to cost? The Palm Center report didn't calculate costs, but did acknowledge that such changes take time and money. Yet so do discriminatory policies, the authors write. If the U.S. military does allow transgender Americans to serve, that's resources saved on the processes once used to remove them from service.

One of the big themes from the Palm Center report was that all this doesn't require a lot of new rules. Transgender service members don't need whole new fitness tests or IDs, for example. That makes the change easier on everyone, and it ensures that transgender and non-transgender personnel ultimately get treated equitably.

Of course, the heart of the proposed change isn't about administration, it's about justice. It's only fair and in line with the military's focus on integrity that all willing and fit Americans should be able to serve their country without lying about who they are. But it's good to know that you can do the right thing and it doesn't have to be a bureaucratic nightmare.