President Biden’s decision to rescind the ban on transgender service members in the armed forces within a week of taking office is a welcome development for a diverse, inclusive and competent military. Despite decades of discrimination, transgender troops have served their country in all branches of the military. While important, meaningful and necessary, however, simply lifting the ban put in place in 2018 isn’t enough to counteract the discrimination transgender service members and veterans continue to face. The next steps for the Department of Defense should be to expand the data available on currently serving transgender personnel, develop a targeted recruitment strategy to reach a more diverse population, and protect LGBT service members from all types of harassment and abuse.
A move that values competency, qualifications and force readiness over discrimination on the basis of gender identity will improve the makeup of the force and allow qualified transgender individuals to join the military. The White House statement announcing the change highlighted the rationale: “America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive. The military is no exception.”
The promise of strength among diversity has been demonstrated multifold throughout the history of the United States military; different perspectives, viewpoints and life experiences brought together make for a stronger and more capable armed forces. Inequality and excluding minority service members from decision making can lead to groupthink. Recent scholarship has proven that diverse and inclusive militaries suffer fewer casualties, defections, and desertions.
A move that values competency, qualifications and force readiness over discrimination on the basis of gender identity will improve the makeup of the force and allow qualified transgender individuals to join the military.
The executive order ending the ban also requests a report within 60 days to Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin, indicating an understanding that progress is not a single action but requires dedicated action and support to ensure that bias has no place in the armed forces. The Secretary of Defense and Pentagon leadership should look for several indicators of progress in implementing a more inclusive military.
First, the services should conduct research to better establish demographic knowledge pertaining to LGBT military personnel. There is a dearth of clear data on the numbers of transgender military personnel. An estimate from the RAND Corporation placed the active-duty transgender population at 2,450 and the reserve component population at 1,510. The transgender population in the United States is estimated to be 1.4 million adults, or 0.6% of the adult population of the country. Both in the general population and among military personnel, the true number of transgender individuals is likely to be higher than reported, due to a lack of research on the topic and the fear of discrimination. Additionally, those who experience gender dysphoria but have not undergone hormone therapy for any reason may fall into the cracks within binary research questions. In order to best serve transgender personnel and meet their needs, the Department of Defense should have a better idea of how many individuals are affected by the policy change.
Second, the Pentagon should examine and develop recruitment policies that would allow transgender individuals to join the armed forces openly. Since the announcement of the initial ban in 2018, approximately 360,000 new recruits joined the active duty force. These classes of recruits operated under standards that excluded transgender individuals or those experiencing gender dysphoria. While the transgender population is small, transgender individuals are more than twice as likely to join the military as cisgender individuals, posing an opening for recruitment. The rolling back of the ban, while a positive development, is not enough to enable the recruitment of a diverse force. Proactive measures and practices must be implemented to ensure the broadest section of American society sees military service as an option, as one size does not fit all for recruitment of varying demographic groups.
Finally, opening the armed forces to transgender individuals requires better and more comprehensive efforts to protect these individuals from sexual harassment and assault. Due to historic marginalization, transgender people have faced and continue to face discrimination, health disparities, and economic challenges. Of primary concern to the Department of Defense should be the physical protection of transgender service members. In the general population, a quarter of transgender individuals have experienced a violent crime. Military sexual harassment and assault is a serious and ongoing problem for the entirety of the armed forces and LGBTQ service members are at higher risk for sexual victimization. Due to limited research on transgender service members, increased awareness of the data is a first step towards reducing sexual trauma.
Removing institutional barriers to transgender troops and recruits is a welcome development to maintaining a diverse military. However, additional steps must be taken by the Pentagon to make sure that the armed forces are both truly representative of the country and conducive to recruiting and retaining skilled, motivated, and strong service members.
Nathalie Grogan is a Research Assistant in the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).