President Biden on Monday repealed former President Trump’s ban on most transgender people serving in the military, the latest action Biden is taking to quickly unravel his predecessor’s policies.
The president signed an executive order that “sets the policy that all Americans who are qualified to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States should be able to serve,” according to a fact sheet released ahead of newly minted Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's meeting with the president at the White House.
“What I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform and essentially restoring the situation … where transgender personnel, if qualified in every other way, can serve their government in the United States military,” Biden said before he signed the order.
He was joined in the Oval Office by Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Vice President Kamala Harris, wearing masks and standing a socially distanced length away from each other.
“This is the right thing to do,” Austin said in a written statement after the order was signed. “It is also the smart thing to do.”
The order revokes Trump’s 2017 and 2018 orders banning transgender military service and directs the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, under which the Coast Guard falls, to ensure all policies are consistent with Biden’s order, according to the fact sheet. It also immediately bans involuntary separations, discharges and denials of reenlistment based on gender identity.
Troops will be able to serve in their gender identity when they complete their transition and their gender has officially been changed in the Defense Department’s personnel system, according to the fact sheet.
The order further requires the Pentagon to review records of service members who were discharged or denied reenlistment under the ban, the fact sheet said.
The Pentagon will “immediately take appropriate policy action to ensure individuals who identify as transgender are eligible to enter and serve in their self-identified gender,” Austin said. Recruits will be able to serve in their gender identity when they meet all applicable accession standards, he added.
The policy will also ensure all medically necessary transition-related care is available to service members, he said.
“The United States Armed Forces are in the business of defending our fellow citizens from our enemies, foreign and domestic,” Austin said. “I believe we accomplish that mission more effectively when we represent all our fellow citizens. I also believe we should avail ourselves of the best possible talent in our population, regardless of gender identity. We would be rendering ourselves less fit to the task if we excluded from our ranks people who meet our standards and who have the skills and the devotion to serve in uniform.”
Biden’s order directs the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security to update him in 60 days on their progress in implementing open service policies.
“Over the next 60 days, I look forward to working with the senior civilian and military leaders of the department as we expeditiously develop the appropriate policies and procedures to implement these changes,” Austin said in his statement.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday, who became the Navy's top officer during the Trump administration, also said Biden's order is the "right thing to do and is another step in ensuring that we continue to recruit and retain the best and most qualified people."
"Today’s policy change eliminates an unnecessary barrier to service and ensures we are able to carry out our mission with the best-qualified and most-capable sailors regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, gender, race or creed," Gilday said in a statement. "I’m absolutely confident in the ability of our sailors – active and reserve, uniform and civilian – to implement this policy in a manner that both protects the readiness of the force and also upholds values cherished by our service."
Biden pledged during his presidential campaign to lift Trump’s ban, referring to it as a “Day One” priority. But it was not among the batch of executive orders Biden signed hours after his inauguration last Wednesday amid a delay in Austin’s confirmation. With Austin's confirmation Friday, Biden was expected to act as soon as Monday.
The Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president, lifted the previous ban on transgender military service in 2016.
A RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Pentagon during the Obama administration found allowing open service would have “a minimal impact on readiness.” Additionally, in 2018, the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marines Corps and Air Force said in congressional testimony they had seen no problems with discipline, morale or unit cohesion resulting from transgender troops serving openly in the military.
But in 2017, Trump tweeted he would reverse the open service policy, saying he would “not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” The tweet blindsided Trump’s Pentagon leadership, which weeks earlier had delayed allowing new transgender recruits to enlist so they could review the policy.
In 2019, after the Supreme Court paved the way for the policy to take effect amid pending lawsuits, the Pentagon implemented a policy meant to fulfill Trump’s order that bars most transgender people from serving in the military unless they do so in their biological sex.
The Democratic-controlled House voted several times to block Trump’s policy, most recently in July, but legislative efforts to repeal the ban were unsuccessful amid Republican control of the Senate and White House even as a handful of Republicans supported open service.
“Today, by reversing the harmful, discriminatory policy of the previous administration, President Biden has ensured that thousands of transgender service members will be able to serve as their authentic selves,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement Monday. “The Biden administration’s commitment to these brave service members – and their fair treatment under the law – underscores the immense value of each and every man and woman who serves or will serve our country in uniform, regardless of their sex assigned at birth.”
The Trump administration denied its policy was a ban because of some limited exceptions. For example, Trump's policy allowed transgender troops and recruits to seek a waiver to serve openly. The military is only known to have granted one waiver since the ban took effect.
Trump’s policy also allowed those who came out under the Obama administration’s policy to continue serving openly.
A memo released over the summer by the Palm Center, which researches issues of gender and sexuality in the military, said open service could be restored within 30 days of an executive order because the Pentagon had to keep the Obama administration’s policy framework intact in order to allow those who already came out to continue serving openly.
“Today, those who believe in fact-based public policy and a strong, smart national defense have reason to be proud,” Palm Center Director Aaron Belkin said in a statement Monday. “The ban will now be replaced with a single standard for everyone that, as in the successful previous policy, will apply equally to all service members. This is a major step in the defense not only of America but of American values. We look forward to a speedy implementation of inclusive policy.”
An estimated 14,700 service members on active duty or in the reserves identify as transgender, advocates say. According to Pentagon data, about 1,500 troops since 2016 have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the medical term for distress that occurs when someone’s gender identity differs from the sex assigned at birth.
Those fighting the ban, who have been urging Biden to act quickly, hailed Monday’s action.
“It is my highest goal to serve my country in the U.S. military and I’ve fought this ban because I know that I am qualified to serve,” Nicolas Talbott, a transgender man who was in the Army ROTC program at the time the ban took effect and is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the policy, said in a statement. “I’m thrilled and relieved that I and other transgender Americans can now be evaluated solely on our ability to meet military standards. I look forward to becoming the best service member I can be.”
Four lawsuits were filed against the Trump administration’s policy. Lawyers in the cases have said they expect the suits to be resolved when Biden reverses the ban.
“President Biden’s order allows us to put this shameful episode behind us and marks the beginning of a much brighter era in which military service is once again based on a person’s qualifications, not on who they are,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and co-counsel in Talbott’s suit. “Transgender people have proved their fitness to serve and ask nothing more than the opportunity to do so based on the same standards that apply to others.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is leading another of the lawsuits, said that cases seeking an end to the ban will be moot once the Pentagon fully implements Biden's order and allows new transgender recruits to enlist, but stressed the organization would not hesitate to turn to the courts should there be any delay.
"Until all of the paperwork is finalized and they're able to enlist, those lawsuits still stay pending in the courts. So I think that we have the resources we need to hold the administration's feet to the fire if they for some reason go slower than they should," Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, told reporters on a conference call. "All indications are that it will be implemented without delay, but we still stand ready to ensure that that happens through the courts if necessary."