WASHINGTON – The Defense Department has issued detailed new policy guidance to military recruiters for how to enlist transgender men and women into the armed forces, intensifying an emotionally charged legal fight over whether the Pentagon is ready to implement such a sensitive cultural change.
The military distributed its guidance throughout the force Dec. 8. Lawyers challenging President Donald Trump's proposed ban on transgender military service, which he announced on Twitter in July, have since included the document in their lawsuits. The memorandum states the Pentagon will comply with federal court orders, now under appeal, that direct the military to begin accepting transgender recruits Jan. 1.
The policy paper was issued by the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command in Chicago, "and shall remain in effect until expressly revoked," the memorandum said. It states that allowing transgender military service is "mandatory," and repeats a previous directive from Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said all people will be "treated with dignity and respect."
Military recruiting personnel are responsible for inputting recruits' personal information into databases. They should do so while using a copy of a recruit's birth certificate, court order or U.S. passport "reflecting preferred gender," according to the Pentagon's new guidance.
"For the purposes of military entrance processing, the applicant's preferred gender will be used on all forms asking for the 'sex' of an applicant," the guidance said.
Individuals who have undergone gender reassignment surgery will be allowed to join the military as long as doctors consider them to have been stable in their new gender for 18 months, with no complications or additional surgery needed.
During their entry screenings, transgender women who have not undergone gender reassignment surgery or hormone replacement "will wear undergarments consistent with their physical anatomy," the memo adds. Transgender women, unlike other female applicants, will not be administered a pregnancy test. Everyone will receive a medical exam specific to their "anatomical characteristics."
The guidance stresses the need for privacy, noting that some physical screening procedures for the military are not carried out in total seclusion.
"All applicants, including those who are transgender, may express concern about privacy in bathrooms, ortho-neuro rooms, applicant hotel rooms, or similar venues," the memo says. "In these cases Commanders may employ reasonable alternate measures to provide greater privacy."
Officials with both the Justice Department and Defense Department have argued in court filings that meeting a Jan. 1 deadline places an extraordinary burden on the services and the Pentagon, and requires training for thousands of recruiters and personnel responsible for providing medical screenings.
"There are considerable requirements associated with implementing this significant and complex policy change across the Department, considering that those personnel directly responsible for execution number in the tens of thousands and are geographically dispersed across the United States," said Lernes Herbert, a senior defense official, in a recent sworn statement to the court.
Attorneys and advocates for transgender service members have said the seven-page memo undercuts the administration's assertion that it is struggling to prepare.
Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, which advocates for transgender people, said the new policy guidance shows that recruiters will not face an undue burden.
"Recruiters are not trained or expected to be medical experts and are not making medical judgments," he said. "Not before, not now."
The Justice Department has argued that efforts to comply with the Jan. 1 deadline should not be construed as an acknowledgment that it is easy to meet.
"Obviously, it would be far preferable to thoroughly train recruiters rather than point them to a deadline," said Catherine Dorsey, a Justice Department attorney, in a memo filed Tuesday. "Our armed forces should not be prejudiced by attempting to do all that they can to comply with a court order on a rushed deadline."
The Defense Department lifted its ban on transgender military service in 2016, under the Obama administration. Transgender men and women already in uniform were allowed to serve openly, but officials delayed acceptance of transgender recruits, acknowledging the military's sprawling recruiting community would need time to implement the change.
Trump wants to restore the policy in place before Obama overturned the ban, and he directed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to submit recommendations for doing so by February, with implementation of a new policy beginning in March. In response, Mattis ordered a study.
Following Trump's pronouncement on Twitter, lawsuits were filed in at least three jurisdictions against the U.S. government to stop the ban. Thus far, the judges have found that there is no reason to prohibit otherwise qualified people from serving in the military.