Three retired U.S. generals added their names Tuesday to growing calls for the U.S. military to repeal its ban on transgender service members, arguing that doing so would not harm the armed forces’ readiness or require major changes to administrative or medical policies.
In a joint statement, Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock, former acting surgeon general of the Army; Brig. Gen. Clara Adams Ender, former chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps; and Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Kolditz, a professor emeritus at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said “allowing transgender personnel to serve openly is administratively feasible and will not be burdensome or complicated.”
“Implementation could proceed immediately and will be successful in its execution,” they added.
The comments accompanied the release of a report by the generals for the Palm Center, a think tank at San Francisco State University’s political science department, that looked at the policies of the 18 countries that do allow transgender military service as well as U.S. studies including the Pentagon’s own guidance on lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."
The report notes that an estimated 15,500 transgender members are already serving in the military (PDF) just not openly, and that because Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has expressed openness to reviewing the ban last May, the U.S. is likely to join countries such as Australia, Germany, Israel and the U.K. that currently do allow transgender citizens to serve.
The change would not require major administrative changes and it would also adhere to the military’s policy of inclusion, the generals said. “All military personnel should serve with honor and integrity, which means that they should not have to lie about who they are,” they wrote in the report. “All persons capable of serving their country should be allowed to do so.”
The generals’ guidance runs counter to current military fitness standards, which disqualify people with a “history of major abnormalities or defects of the genitalia such as change of sex” or with “psychosexual conditions,” including “transvestitism” and “gender identity disorder.”
As such, the existing policy categorizes transgender identity as a psychological disorder and bars anyone from service who may have had transgender-related surgery.
The U.S. military policy, the report notes, goes against both the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases and the DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual for mental disorders, which no longer classifies gender nonconformity as a disorder or a mental illness.
“Many individuals who do not identify with the physical gender they were assigned at birth do not suffer from clinically significant distress, and therefore do not have a medical or psychological illness,” the generals wrote.
The report said no new medical policies are necessary for treating transgender service members. For example, current military policy already allows hormone treatments for troops who have hormonal imbalances, suffer from the fertility disorder endometriosis or have had a hysterectomy, among other conditions. Service members who need hormone treatments for gender transitions can also be treated under current medical policy, which says troops can take any medication as long as it doesn’t have significant side effects or interfere with military duty.
The report said that transition-related surgery “should be regarded no differently from any other surgery,” and recruits would only be disqualified from serving if they have severe post-operative complications, as would be the case with any other type of surgery. For current service members who plan to have gender reassignment surgery, they should take medical leave for surgery and recovery in the same way they would for any other medical procedure.
Such a policy could mean that Chelsea Manning, the U.S. soldier convicted of leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks, and who was confirmed by military doctors to have gender dysphoria disorder, would be given hormone therapy while serving her 35-year prison sentence. Manning’s attorney and the ACLU said Friday that she was not receiving hormone treatment in jail as previously approved by Hagel.
Transgender status would be subject to the same confidentiality rules as all medical information, the report said.
In terms of physical fitness requirements, eligibility for gender-specific job specialties, and the like, the report advised that troops in transition should be subject to the same rules as the target gender.
And in terms of housing and bathroom use, the report suggested considering each person’s needs on a case-by-case basis, but stressed that no service member should be forced to use a separate bathroom or changing area. It offered the example that the military has a long history of men and women living in close quarters and using the same housing and bathroom facilities. So whether it’s staggering shower times, allowing people to wear shirts or shorts in the shower or using a separate shower altogether, the military already has policies in place to accommodate people's needs, whether transgender or not.
“When you look at how the military has expertise in this area, you can conclude that it’s really not a big deal,” Aaron Belkin, founder and director of the Palm Center, said.
The report suggested creating a set of guidelines for the military modeled on the Australian Air Force’s handbook regarding gender transitioning while serving.
“This is a little different than ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Belkin said. “With ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ you could really just get rid of the ban, and it was fine. With transgender inclusion, you don’t want to just get rid of the ban and do nothing. There are a few steps, but those steps aren’t difficult.”
He added that while detractors have said they don’t know how troops in transition would handle “austere environments” if deployed, “those concerns are really unfounded," he said. "It’s not rocket science to have a diverse military.”