The U.S. Department of Defense issued orders Tuesday to limit service by people with gender dysphoria the same way it restricts individuals with diabetes, heart disease, HIV, and other medical conditions that could endanger soldiers and their units. The orders, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, enact suggestions made by Pentagon leadership a year ago and require the military services to implement the new rules within 30 days.
The new policy distinguishes between people who identify as transgender and people with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, though the two often overlap. Under the new rules, any current transgender service member or anyone who has signed an enlistment contract by April 12 may move forward with hormone treatment and gender transition if they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. But after April 12, both enlistees and current service members who receive a new diagnosis of gender dysphoria must forego hormone treatment and sex change surgery and be willing to serve in the military as their biological sex. If an individual with gender dysphoria is unable or unwilling to serve as his or her biological sex, the military will move forward with separation procedures. The order allows waivers or exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
The announcement comes after years of back-and-forth on the issue, and the battle will likely continue. In 2016, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter repealed the ban on transgender military service and signed new policies allowing transgender individuals to transition from being recognized as one gender to another while in the military. In 2017, President Donald Trump directed the Pentagon to bar transgender recruits but gave then–Defense Secretary James Mattis discretion on how to handle transgender service members already serving. Lawsuits held up the policy Mattis suggested, but a federal judge lifted the last of four injunctions against it on March 7, spurring the Pentagon to move forward. Mattis resigned as secretary of defense at the end of December.
The policy “is not a ban on transgender individuals,” said Thomas C. Crosson, a Defense Department spokesman. “As a matter of fact, the policy specifically prohibits discrimination based on gender identity.”
Crosson said the policy instead focuses on the medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and aspects of the condition that could limit someone’s ability to deploy. The military enforces a long list of medical restrictions—more than 70 percent of military-aged Americans cannot meet the standards, according to the Defense Department. A 2018 Pentagon report found service members with gender dysphoria were eight times more likely to attempt suicide and nine times more likely to need mental health treatment. From 2015 to 2017, 994 active duty service members diagnosed with gender dysphoria accounted for 30,000 mental health visits.
“In order to maintain a ready and lethal force, the military must set high standards, consistent standards, across the services,” Crosson said.
Critics immediately lambasted the new policy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called it “bigoted,” “disgusting,” and “cowardly.” Others said it would force service members to lie or keep quiet about their gender identities. “This fight is NOT over,” tweeted LGBT legal group Lambda Legal.
But the Pentagon insists military and civilian experts developed the policy in consultation with medical professionals, and it does not unfairly withhold the opportunity for military service from any qualified, able-bodied American.
“There are many transgender service members serving today with honor and distinction who are meeting these military standards,” said Crosson. “We continue to welcome the service of anyone who can meet these standards.”