By Nancy A. Youssef Updated Jan. 25, 2021 1:57 pm ET
WASHINGTON—The White House on Monday lifted restrictions against transgender service members in the U.S. military, marking President Biden’s first major military personnel decision and reversing a directive by former President Donald Trump.
The removal of the restrictions was expected after Mr. Biden last week signed an executive order aimed at preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“President Biden believes that gender identity should not be a bar to military service, and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” the White House said in a statement on the decision, which was issued though an executive order. “America is stronger, at home and around the world, when it is inclusive.”
Mr. Biden signed the executive order lifting the restrictions during a brief appearance before reporters in the Oval Office. He was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Biden said he was reinstating a position supported by previous military commanders and defense secretaries, “enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform.”
In a statement released shortly after Mr. Biden signed the executive order, Mr. Austin said the Pentagon would immediately take action “to ensure individuals who identify as transgender are eligible to enter and serve in their self-identified gender.”
In addition, the military health-care system would cover medically necessary gender transition care.
“Prospective recruits may serve in their self-identified gender when they have met the appropriate standards for accession into the military services,” Mr. Austin said.
The Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of the U.S. Coast Guard, are expected to provide the White House with an update on implementing the new policy in 60 days, the White House statement said.
“This is a major step in the defense not only of America but of American values,” said Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, a research institute and advocacy organization that works on military-diversity policy. “The ban will now be replaced with a single standard for everyone that…will apply equally to all service members.”
Mr. Trump in July 2017 announced he was banning transgender people from military service in a series of tweets, catching his defense secretary at the time, Jim Mattis, by surprise. Rules concerning transgender service members had been eased the year before by the Obama administration in a move that also provided for military medical care for a condition known as gender dysphoria.
Gender dysphoria is a condition that many professional associations have said requires medical treatment. For instance, gender dysphoria is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a medical issue. When diagnosed by a medical professional, transition therapy and reassignment surgery is considered by some insurers and states as a medically necessary treatment.
Opponents to transgender service members, including some conservative congressional Republicans, have said their presence disrupts military readiness and imposes heavy medical costs on the military’s health-care system. They also have questioned whether transgender service members are as capable as others in the military of deploying whenever and wherever needed, a contention rebutted by advocacy groups.
A 2016 study for the Pentagon by the Rand Corporation calculated medical costs borne by the military for including transgender service members at between $2.4 million and $8.4 million annually, a fraction of a percent of the military’s health-care expenditures.
According to the Pentagon, there are roughly 9,000 service members who identify as transgender but only 1,000 or fewer who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. Independent estimates have put the total figure of transgender service members at about 16,000. There are roughly 1.3 million active-duty service members.
The decision by the Trump administration led to a series of lawsuits, in some cases leaving commanders unsure of how to proceed. In 2019, the Supreme Court issued brief written orders that temporarily blocked the effect of multiple lower court rulings that had prevented Mr. Trump and the Pentagon from implementing restrictions on transgender service members.
Mr. Biden has issued more than two dozen executive orders in his first days in office, also focusing on areas such as the environment, workers and the role of government in the economy, drawing criticism from Republicans.