The Pentagon will no longer bar transgender individuals from serving in the U.S. military, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday.
The new policy, which will be phased in over the next year, will require the Military Health System to provide transgender service members with medically-necessary care related to their gender transition. It will immediately allow transgender individuals currently serving in the U.S. armed forces to do so openly.
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"This is the right thing to do for our people and for the force," Carter said in a statement announcing the new policy. "We’re talking about talented Americans who are serving with distinction or who want the opportunity to serve. We can’t allow barriers unrelated to a person’s qualifications prevent us from recruiting and retaining those who can best accomplish the mission."
Current service members cannot be involuntarily separated, discharged, or denied reenlistment on the basis of their gender identity effective immediately. In one year, all services will begin allowing transgender individuals to join the armed forces.
By Oct. 1, the Defense Department will establish and distribute a training handbook, medical protocol, and guidance for changing a service member’s gender. At this point, the services will be required to "provide medically necessary care and treatment to transgender service members according to the medical protocol and guidance," according to a press release about the new policy issued by the Pentagon.
Until then, requests for medical treatment are to be handled on a case-by-case basis. The full policy is to be completed and implement by the start of next July.
Carter made the announcement at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The new policy has been in the works for months. Carter first announced that he would change the Pentagon’s "outdated" regulations toward transgender service members nearly one year ago. Then, Carter established a work-group to study the policy and implications to readiness of allowing transgender individuals to serve openly.
Senior military members have expressed concern that the Pentagon is moving too quickly to implement the policy and has not resolved all details, the Associated Press reported on Thursday ahead of Carter’s announcement.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, described the new policy as the latest example of the Pentagon and President Obama "prioritizing politics over policy." He said that the focus should be on military readiness, and accused the Pentagon of not answering crucial readiness questions.
"Our military readiness—and hence, our national security—is dependent on our troops being medically ready and deployable. The Administration seems unwilling or unable to assure the Congress and the American people that transgender individuals will meet these individual readiness requirements at a time when our Armed Forces are deployed around the world," Thornberry said in a statement.
"Over the next few weeks, we are going to continue to push for actual answers to the readiness questions we’ve been asking for nearly a year to which we have still not received a response," the lawmaker said. "We will also be looking at legislative options to address the readiness issues associated with this new policy."