Biden overturns ban on transgender people joining U.S. military

U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday overturned a controversial ban by his predecessor on transgender individuals serving in the country’s military, a move that fulfils a campaign promise and will be cheered by LGBTQ advocates.

Flanked by Vice-President Kamala Harris, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Biden signed the executive order in the Oval Office.

“It’s simple: America is safer when everyone qualified to serve can do so openly and with pride,” Biden said on Twitter after the signing.

Former Democratic president Barack Obama in 2016 allowed trans people to serve openly and receive medical care to transition genders, but his Republican successor, Donald Trump, froze their recruitment while allowing serving personnel to remain.

Ban hurt military readiness: report

When Trump announced the ban in 2017 on Twitter, he said the military needed to focus on “decisive and overwhelming victory” without being burdened by the “tremendous medical costs and disruption” of having transgender personnel.

A November 2020 report by the LGBTQ-rights think-tank the Palm Center co-written by former military surgeons general said the transgender ban had hurt military readiness.

Austin in a statement said he supported the move and would immediately take action to ensure that transgender people are eligible to enter the military.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump transgender policy of 2019 could stand while it faces separate lawsuits in lower courts.

About 1.3 million active personnel serve in the U.S. military, Department of Defense data shows. There are no official figures on the number of trans members but the Rand Corp, a U.S. policy research institute, estimated in 2016 about 2,450 active service members were transgender.

“The greatest military in the world will again value readiness over bias, and qualifications over discrimination,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization in the United States.

‘Huge weight off my shoulders’

But the fact that any president can decide whether transgender people can serve in the military is problematic, advocates said. Any American who is fit and able should have the right to serve, they argue.

“We must make sure that future presidents do not backslide on our values of equality and inclusion, and I intend to add a provision to this year’s defence policy bill to secure a permanent policy of nondiscrimination for our armed forces,” said Congresswoman Jackie Speier, chair of the House armed services military personnel subcommittee.

Nic Talbott, a transgender man, was forced to drop out of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) due to Trump’s ban. On Monday, he said Biden’s move had given him and other transgender people an opportunity to once again join the military.

Nic Talbott, shown in March 2020 at his home in Lisbon, Ohio, was a plaintiff in one of four lawsuits filed in federal courts challenging then president Donald Trump’s ban on transgender individuals in the U.S. military. (Keith Srakocic/The Associated Press)

“This is such a huge relief, such a huge weight off my shoulders,” Talbott said.

“I know there are thousands of other people out there just like me who have been counting down to this day, waiting to be able to start our careers and start our lives.”

Once the order is implemented, Talbott said he plans to enter another ROTC.

One of several measures ‘to advance equity’

The decision comes as Biden plans to turn his attention to equity issues that he believes continue to shadow nearly all aspects of American life.

Ahead of his inauguration, Biden’s transition team circulated a memo from Ron Klain, now the White House chief of staff, that sketched out Biden’s plan to use his first full week as president “to advance equity and support communities of color and other underserved communities.”

The move to overturn the transgender ban is also the latest example of Biden using executive authority in his first days as president to dismantle Trump’s legacy.

Biden’s early actions include orders to overturn a Trump administration ban on travellers from several predominantly Muslim countries, stop construction of the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and launch an initiative to advance racial equity.

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