Biden reverses Trump’s trans military ban

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LGBTQ advocates are hailing an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on Jan. 25, reversing a Trump-era policy that severely restricted military service for trans people. Biden’s action reinstates an Obama-era policy that allowed trans people to serve openly in the military. The Trump-era policy took effect in 2019 after two years of legal wrangling. It barred transgender troops and recruits from gender transitioning.

Biden’s order provides immediate protection for all transgender service members. It stops all involuntary separations or discharges based on gender identity, and directs the secretary of Defense and the secretary of Homeland Security — who oversees the Coast Guard — to implement the order and apprise the president within 60 days on their progress.

Trans service members praised Biden’s action. “This is a significant and hopeful moment for our country,” said Staff Sergeant Cathrine (Katie) Schmid, a 15-year active service member of the U.S. Army, in a statement. “Over the last three years, we’ve fought to prove that transgender people are not a burden, a hindrance, or a distraction. We are an equal and contributing part of this society just as much as any other group. And this development vindicates that basic principle. This isn’t simply about our place in the military, or my place in my unit. It’s about our right to be treated as co-equal members of society. This harmful and backwards policy will now be put where it belongs — in a very short, shameful chapter of U.S. military history.”

Navy Petty Officer Second Class Megan Winters echoed those sentiments. “For the last several years, I’ve felt a target on my back,” Winters said, in a statement. “The thought of losing everything that I’ve worked so hard to obtain, even though I’ve done nothing wrong, was constantly on my mind. Without the ban, that target would be removed, and I could go back to simply being a fellow service member serving my country. Needless to say, President Biden’s announcement today is an important step towards getting some relief and peace of mind about my continued service and career in the United States Navy.”

Local advocates similarly praised the executive order. “President Biden’s swift action to undo this shameful policy should be applauded,” said Celena Morrison, executive director of the Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs. “This policy was a direct attack on transgender individuals in the military when it was implemented. And it is encouraging to see federal leadership now rejecting hate and discrimination within our institutions. Paired with his earlier executive order affirming the importance of LGBTQ+ rights, it is clear that the Biden-Harris administration is committed to supporting our communities. I’m hopeful these positive developments will continue.”

Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Center, echoed Morrison’s remarks. “It will take years to heal the wounds caused by the Trump administration’s hostility to trans people,” Bartlett said, in an email. “It’s exciting and energizing that the Biden administration has gotten straight to work with starting the healing by lifting this anti-trans military policy.” 

Thomas W. Ude Jr., legal and public policy director of Mazzoni Center, also praised Biden’s action. “Removing the ban is a welcome return to sanity and common sense and a rejection of ignorant stereotypes,” Ude said, in an email. “There was never a good reason to exclude trans service members, as the military confirmed after conducting its own study and having a plan to include trans troops. The most important component of President Biden’s plan is educating cisgender troops, countering the misinformation that remains widespread. Serving side-by-side builds trust. That helps the military and will cause ripples that increase equal opportunity for trans folks in civilian life and society.”

Preston Heldibridle, state policy associate for Pennsylvania Youth Congress, said the Trump-era policy was cruel. “The Trump administration’s arbitrary and discriminatory transgender military policy was cruelty for cruelty’s sake — ignoring pragmatic, common sense policy in order to exclude and repress thousands of Americans serving or planning to serve,” Heldibridle said, in an email. “It also served to send a message to those of us at home that transgender people should be treated differently than other Americans. The reversal of this military ban is a necessary move to ensure anyone who is fit to serve may do so, and to bring us closer to being a country that recognizes transgender people as fully human.” 

Local trans advocate Deja Alvarez expressed similar sentiments. “Any American who wants to serve this country should be free to do so and free to do it as their authentic self,” Alvarez told PGN. “Free of judgment, prejudice and punishment. This ban has harmed so many of our soldiers while preventing others from pursuing their dreams of serving in our military. Our military is in place to protect our freedoms and rights. Living as your authentic self is one of those freedoms.”

Adrian Shanker, executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Center, welcomed the news. “President Biden’s executive order today is welcome news for all Americans who believe that discrimination has no place in America, particularly in federal government jobs like military service,” Shanker said, in a statement. “Transgender people who want to serve our country can now do so openly under President Biden’s executive order. Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center is proud of the president for his swift and unwavering support of transgender civil rights at the start of his term.”

In addition to protecting transgender service members, the executive order also requires officials to find the records of any troops who were discharged because of their gender identity, and correct their military records — possibly upgrading dishonorable discharges to honorable.

The order says “it shall be the policy of the United States to ensure that all transgender individuals who wish to serve in the United States military and can meet the appropriate standards shall be able to do so openly and free from discrimination.”

A White House news release stated that “President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity. This question of how to enable all qualified Americans to serve in the military is easily answered by recognizing our core values. America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also expressed support for reversing Trump’s anti-trans policy during his Senate confirmation hearing last week. “If you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve, and you can expect that I will support that throughout,” Austin testified.

While the Trump administration maintained its policy wasn’t a “ban,” it prevented trans people who plan to pursue gender-affirming hormones or surgery from enlisting. Trans people who were already serving openly were grandfathered in, meaning they could continue to serve. But service members who came out as trans after the policy went into effect weren’t permitted to transition.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.