Gay and lesbian service members in the U.S. military will be given protection from discrimination under the military's equal opportunity policy, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Tuesday, although transgender soldiers are still barred.
For the first time in its straight-laced history, the Pentagon will treat discrimination based on sexual orientation the same as it considers race, religion, color, sex, age and national origin when investigating complaints, Carter said.
"Recognizing that our openness to diversity is one of the things that [has] allowed us to be the best in the world, we must ensure that everyone who's able and willing to serve has the full and equal opportunity to do so," he said. "And we must start from a position of inclusivity, not exclusivity."
The shift came as the Pentagon celebrated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Month at a ceremony that was broadcast on an internal TV network to U.S. military bases around the world.
The move came nearly four years after the formal end of "don't ask, don't tell," a 17-year-old law that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. If they revealed their sexual orientation, they could be kicked out, according to the law.
Over the years, thousands of men and women in uniform were expelled. Openly gay civilian employees at the Defense Department faced similar discrimination until 1995 because they often could not obtain security clearances needed to work in national security agencies.
"Young Americans today are more diverse, open and tolerant than past generations," Carter said. "If we're going to attract the best and brightest among them to contribute to our mission of national defense, we have to ourselves be more open, diverse and tolerant, too."
LGBT groups applauded the Pentagon for broadening its anti-discrimination policy, but called on military leaders to extend the protection to transgender soldiers.
The Pentagon bans transgender troops from openly serving, and policy dictates that they be kicked out if discovered.
David Stacy, government affairs director with Human Rights Campaign, a LGBT rights group based in Washington, said those restrictions should be lifted to ensure "full LGBT equality in the military."
Both the Army and the Air Force have worked to be more flexible by requiring senior officials to approve service members' discharges on a case-by-case basis.
The American Military Partner Assn., an organization of LGBT military families, said thousands of transgender service members are unable to serve openly due to the regulations.
"It's incredibly important to note that we absolutely cannot leave our transgender service members behind," Ashley Broadway-Mack, the group's president, said in a statement. "We again urge Secretary Carter to also order a full and comprehensive review to update the outdated regulations that prevent transgender service members from serving."