What does transgenderism have in common with drug abuse and schizophrenia? According to the Department of Defense, they are all reasons to bar people from military service.
The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" may have ended the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops, but a ban remains in place for an estimated 15,000 transgender troops, who must serve in secret or not at all. This groundless policy not only weakens the military, it stigmatizes transgenderism and deprives military personnel and veterans of the transgender-specific healthcare they need — even as other federal programs such as Medicare have lifted similar restrictions.
Military regulations have lagged behind on issues of civil rights for centuries. Commanding officers use the same reasoning to ban transgender troops that they previously did to ban female and gay troops: They're not fit for battle. It will harm unit cohesion. Yet time and again, these assertions have proved to be unfounded.
The Palm Center, a think tank at San Francisco State University that focuses on LGBT issues in the military, put these archaic notions to rest earlier this year in a study co-chaired by former Surgeon Gen. Joycelyn Elders and Rear Adm. Alan M. Steinman, MD. The report declared that "there is no compelling medical rationale to exclude transgender people from military service, and eliminating the ban would enable commanders to better care for their troops." Retired Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Kolditz, who served on the commission, predicted that ending the ban would reduce harassment, assaults and suicides.
If the military is unswayed by the research, perhaps it should consider the story of Kristin Beck. For 20 years, Beck served in the Navy SEALs, seeing 13 deployments, most of them in combat, and earning an impressive slate of military awards and decorations, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. In 2013, Beck came out as a trans woman after years of hiding her true identity. "No one ever met the real me," she told CNN's Anderson Cooper later that year.
In May, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told ABC News that he was open to reviewing the transgender ban, and President Obama signed an executive order on Monday that includes formal protection of transgender federal employees from discrimination at work.
When it comes to issues of civil rights, Obama, like most politicians, has allowed public opinion to dictate his actions. Progress has been made, but at an infuriatingly slow pace. If this president hopes to be remembered for advancing equality, he won't wait any longer on this issue. The military is not only America's largest employer, it's an important face we present to the world — and no place for discrimination.