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Allyson D. Robinson Headshot

Open Transgender Military Service: It's Time to Get Started

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Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images
Jason Reed-Pool/Getty Images

Now that he's no longer Secretary of Defense, I imagine that Leon Panetta has very little to worry about, least of all his legacy.

Panetta's announcement just weeks before leaving office that he would bring an end to the policy of excluding women from combat assignments surprised, well, everyone. To call this move historic is to put it mildly. Not long after that, he made history again, bringing a measure of equity to the benefits offered to same-sex military families before leaving D.C. to return to his much-loved walnut farm in California. History will remember Panetta's tenure at the Defense Department favorably for these decisions to change policies that no longer reflected the reality of our wars or, just as importantly, the values of our nation.

As a woman veteran, I was elated with these changes. As the wife of a woman veteran (my wife Danyelle was a West Point classmate of mine and served as an Army officer with honor and distinction), I felt encouraged by them.

But as a transgender veteran, and an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) service members, veterans and their families, the changes that Secretary Panetta brought about in his last days in office have left me emboldened. Here's why: As the combat exclusion for women comes to an end and open service for gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans edges closer to truly equal service, it becomes more and more obvious that there is no longer any rational basis on which to bar qualified transgender people from serving in our armed forces.

At the heart of the combat exclusion rule were two assumptions that were accepted uncritically, if not quite universally, for decades. The first was that women are somehow, by our nature, "unfit" for close combat. The valorous service of America's women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, asymmetric battlefields where the "front line" is everywhere and every trooper faces the risk of close combat every day, put the lie to that. So too did the military's uncanny ability to find ways to circumvent the rules as it became apparent they were no longer working in the field. Today there are few more effective ways to reveal oneself to be an armchair general, out of touch with the reality of modern war, than by saying that women don't have what it takes to hang on the battlefield.

The second assumption underlying the combat exclusion was that the differences between men and women (real or, just as frequently, the product of sexist imagination) could not be accommodated under battlefield conditions without compromising the war-fighting effectiveness of the force. Steady advances in combat service support technology, techniques and procedures rendered all serious objections in this category obsolete long ago. (I refuse even to honor with a response those objections based not on quantifiable differences in the sexes but on chauvinist notions of a need to protect women, or to protect men from women.)

With the stroke of a pen, Secretary Panetta consigned these two assumptions to the dustbin of history, where, along with military racial segregation and "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), they can serve as embarrassing reminders of how easy it is to justify our prejudices in the name of security. However, it will be up to his successors to take the next logical step: the exorcism from DOD regulations of what is today a blanket, no-exceptions-allowed exclusion of all transgender people from service. Such a move is absolutely appropriate today, because the bottom line is this: If "valor knows no gender," as President Obama said when the combat exclusion rule fell, and if men and women really can be accommodated simultaneously under close combat conditions without a negative impact on war-fighting ability, then there is no reason other than prejudice for the transgender exclusion to remain.

Transgender people (people whose inherent sense of their gender is out of sync with the sex they were declared to be when they were born) have served in America's armed forces from the start. Today thousands wear our nation's uniform and fight our nation's wars, despite the fact that, like gay and lesbian service members under DADT, they must hide who they are to serve the country they love. However, what makes their situation different from that faced until recently by gays and lesbians is that no law bars their way. Instead, military medical regulations written decades before most of them were born, when being transgender was poorly understood and prejudice ran deep even among medical and mental health professionals, pronounce them unfit to serve.

Over the last 50 years our understanding of the transgender experience has grown significantly. Today thousands of Americans every year receive treatment for gender dysphoria, as the condition is now known. They go on to live full, fulfilling lives and to contribute to their communities and society, often in exemplary ways. They are famous inventors, engineers and well-known authors, fire fighters and police officers, teachers and pastors, parents and spouses -- and soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen. In fact, studies show that transgender people are more likely than their fellow citizens to serve in the military -- perhaps twice as likely.

For these reasons, many of our nation's closest allies have already adapted their policies, and in the armed forces of countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel, transgender people today serve openly and with honor. These are some of the most professional and effective fighting forces on the planet, the friends we turn to when we need someone to stand with us in a tough fight. The experience of these allies as they have integrated transgender service members into their ranks proves that the old assumptions about gender in the military no longer apply. A person's gender really shouldn't automatically disqualify them for service. The gender-based needs of men and women really can be accommodated together in the vast majority of military contexts without a detrimental impact on readiness, unit cohesion and good order and discipline -- in other words, without impairing a unit's ability to fight and win.

What remains, then, is to attack the problem at its root by finally updating the web of outdated and obsolete medical, readiness and conduct policies that make up the transgender ban. With the ending of the combat exclusion policy, no reasonable justification remains for its existence. The military has no interest in barring from service an entire class of qualified people; in fact, as the force draws down after a decade of war and we enter a time when the quality of new recruits trumps quantity, it's vital that recruiters have the widest possible pool of applicants from which to draw. But if that alone isn't enough to spur action on this front, perhaps another recent change is.

Late last year the American Psychiatric Association (APA) granted final approval to a series of updates to its most important resource, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Used by health professionals the world over, the DSM establishes diagnostic criteria for the entire range of conditions related to mental health, from autism to post-traumatic stress disorder to gender dysphoria. The updates that the APA approved resulted from a rigorous revision process, which took years to complete as new research and results from the field were evaluated by committees of experts for incorporation. They included significant changes to the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria, changes directly relevant to military policy.

Keeping abreast of the changes that result from this regular revision process and incorporating them into their work is how mental health professionals ensure that they are giving their clients the best, most effective advice and care. It's also how public policy makers at the federal, state and local levels ensure that the regulations under which they operate represent the best, most up-to-date understanding of the groups they serve. That includes the officials at the Pentagon who are responsible for medical and readiness standards.

The publication of the updated DSM next month presents the the best opportunity we've had to bring an end to the outdated ban on transgender service. They make clear that being transgender is not debilitating, nor is it "disordered"; it does not prevent a person from functioning at the highest levels or contributing in exemplary ways. That includes members of the armed forces.

For all these reasons, it's time to get started. Our military has a legacy of excellence to uphold, and its new leaders have a legacy of fairness to build.