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Pentagon lifts women's combat ban but transgender community still unfit to serve

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to offically announce lift of ban prohibiting women from serving in combat
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to offically announce lift of ban prohibiting women from serving in combat
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Under anonymity, a senior defense official revealed today that Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defense, would be lifting the military ban on women serving in combat—a monumental victory in women's rights within the ranks of the military framework. This decision, which was recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, overturns the 1994 ground combat exclusion policy, which states that “[s]ervice members are eligible to be assigned to all positions for which they are qualified, except that women shall be excluded from assignment to units below the brigade level whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground.” Combat positions may be open to women later this year, as the implementation of including women in assessments for combat must begin proceedings by May 15th.

Women's right to serve in combat would appear to be the final step towards equal opportunity to serve, considering discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation under Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) was overturned in 2011. However, although both of these decisions have shed unnecessary, dehumanizing and impractical policies, transgender and transsexual men and women remain banned from service altogether. In the wake of DADT's repeal, several transgender service members spoke out under the condition of anonymity about how they remain unfit for military service due to medical guidelines. Until last year, gender identity disorder (GID) labeled transgender and transsexual individuals as having a mental disorder under the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Being labeled mentally ill automatically makes one ineligible for military service, which is why trans men and women were not able to serve openly alongside lesbian, gay and bisexual service members after DADT was repealed.

The new DSM has replaced GID with “gender dysphoria,” which describes psychological distress over one's gender identity not being in tune with their anatomical sex. This removes the pathology of mental illness but still allows transgender and transsexual men and women to seek medical coverage for hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery (SRS) and other treatments related to trans health care. However, as the legal activist group OutServe-SLDN points out, even without the stigma of mental illness, trans men and women can still be rejected for military service during the physical examination process if they have undergone genital reconstruction. The National Center for Trangender Equality (NCTE) recommends that “the Department of Defense should eliminate transgender status and gender identity disorder diagnosis as automatic disqualifications from military service and should ensure that medical fitness standards treat transgender service members equally with all other service members.” It remain unclear if Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will address overturning bans on military service based on gender identity, but such action would be consistent with the progressive actions they have taken over the past two years.