By Joe Dworetzky
Bay City News Foundation
President Joe Biden on Monday issued an executive order permitting transgender individuals to serve in the military, the latest change in course on the issue over the last handful of years.
The order overturned a previous one by former President Donald Trump banning transgender individuals, which in turn had overturned a policy under President Barack Obama permitting them.
Biden’s action drew praise from Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco Office of Transgender Initiatives Monday.
“It was unpatriotic that dedicated service members have been threatened to be discharged simply for who they are, and that qualified Americans were banned from serving our country,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “We applaud President Biden’s swift action to rescind these shameful bans. We are pleased that we can now partner with a Federal Administration to ensure the safety and wellness on all of our communities.”
Policy on transgender service members has see-sawed under different administrations in recent years.
On June 30, 2016, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that “effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.”
That policy — the result of months of internal review by the administration of former President Barack Obama — reversed a previous policy that generally forbade openly transgender individuals from military service.
A year later, on July 26, 2017, then-President Donald Trump changed course through a series of tweets that stated, “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow … Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
Trump offered this rationale: “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming … victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
A month later, Trump issued a Presidential Memorandum to implement the tweets, directing military leadership “to return to the longstanding policy and practice on military service by transgender individuals that was in place prior to June 2016.”
Two months later, a U.S. District Court judge sitting in Washington, D.C., entered a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking the new policy from taking effect. Similar injunctions were entered in other courts around the country.
On Jan. 22, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, vacated the injunctions in two of the lower court cases, and in the spring, the Trump administration policy went into effect.
That state of affairs lasted until Monday morning when President Biden tweeted: “Today, I repealed the discriminatory ban on transgender people serving in the military. It’s simple: America is safer when everyone qualified to serve can do so openly and with pride.”
Biden also issued an executive order to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity on his first day in office, and has nominated Dr. Rachel Levine for the position of assistant health secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. She stands to be the first out transgender federal official confirmed by the United States Senate.
“President Biden’s executive orders affirm the value and contribution of transgender, gender nonconforming, and LGBTQ Americans who have served or want to serve our country. Today’s announcement gives us hope for the opportunities ahead to make our country safer and more just for all,” Clair Farley, a senior advisor to Breed and director of the San Francisco Office of Transgender Initiatives, said in a statement. “Today is the result of regular people putting their livelihoods on the line to speak up for fairness and equality. We applaud your bravery along with President Biden’s actions today.”
A 2016 Rand Corporation study estimated that there were then between 2,150 and 10,790 transgender service members, including those in the reserves.
The most recent executive order was signed in the Oval Office before a meeting with newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin, the first Black person to serve in that capacity. During his confirmation hearings, Austin told members of the Senate that he supported repeal of the Trump administration transgender policy.