Less than a week into his new job, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Sunday suggested he is “open-minded” about transgender people serving in the U.S. military during remarks to servicemembers in Afghanistan.
Carter was asked at a troop event in Kandahar, Afghanistan, what his “thoughts” were on transgender members serving in an “austere” environment like Kandahar.
Though he admitted he hadn’t looked at the issue extensively, Carter said he was “very open-minded” about the possibility. He suggested the issue shouldn’t be factored into whether prospective troops are fit for service.
“I come at this kind of question from a fundamental starting point, which is that we want to make our conditions and experience of service as attractive as possible to our best people in our country,” Carter said.
“And I’m very open-minded about — otherwise about what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us. That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members? And I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.”
Carter’s comments come a week after reports indicated the U.S. Army was considering a significant change to its policy on transgender soldiers. The draft document reportedly under consideration would change policy so that transgender officers could only be removed from service through a decision by the assistant secretary of the Army for personnel. Current military policy considers transgender people “administratively unfit” for service.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, a medical reserve officer who advocates on behalf of LGBTI patients, asked Carter the question on Sunday. In an email Monday morning, he told Fusion he was “very pleased” with Carter’s answer.
“I was very pleased with Secretary Carter’s answer, as it was thoughtful, genuine and consistent with other statements made by our leadership about wanting to work to eliminate discrimination and disparities,” Ehrenfeld said.
“I am hopeful that one day soon, all Americans will be able to serve their country freely and openly in the military – regardless of the gender identity.”
LGBT advocates welcomed the potential shift in policy last week, and they were encouraged by Carter’s comments on Sunday.
Joshua Block, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, called it a “positive step.” But he also urged caution in determining the readiness for progress on the issue, noting that former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had spoken in support of a review of the military’s transgender policy but never ordered that review before he left his post.
“It’s important that there be concrete actions taken to commence a formal review and to remove these regulations from the books,” Block told Fusion in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s been almost a year since Sec. Hagel said he’d be open to reexamining the issue. At least as far as the Pentagon is saying, there haven’t been formal steps taken to make that review a reality.”