New Defense Secretary Supports Transgender Military Service

Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaking with military personnel in Afghanistan this weekend. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JONATHAN ERNST
Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaking with military personnel in Afghanistan this weekend. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JONATHAN ERNST

Ash Carter was sworn in as the country’s new Defense Secretary just last week, and this weekend, he spoke out in favor of ending the military’s ban on transgender servicemembers.

At a town hall in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Carter received a question about transgender service from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, a member of the American Military Partner Association, an organization of LGBT military families. He responded that though he hasn’t studied the issue closely, he believes that if it doesn’t impact their ability to serve, gender identity should not be a disqualification for service.

“I come at this kind of question from a fundamental starting point, which is that we want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country,” Carter explained. “And I’m very open-minded about — otherwise about what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us. That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members? And I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.”

Last year, Carter’s predecessor Chuck Hagel similarly said that the military’s ban should be reviewed. Indeed, the Department of Defense has already begun to ease the policy by removing the rule that servicemembers can be kicked out for being transgender. Unfortunately, the individual branches have not yet followed suit, and the ban on transgender enlistment is still in place department-wide, so the status quo has not yet changed.

Ehrenfeld told the Washington Blade that he asked the question because as an officer in Navy Health Care, he has personally taken care of and interacted with numerous transgender servicemembers. “I am continually struck by how these individuals, who risk their lives every day to support our mission, live not in fear of the enemy, but rather in fear of being discovered for who they are,” he explained.

The Williams Institute estimates that there are over 15,000 active duty transgender servicemembers or reservists, and over 130,000 transgender veterans and retirees. Studies suggest that transgender people are twice as likely to serve (or have served) in the military as the general public.