The Pentagon will let transgender individuals serve openly in the U.S. military, ending one of the last bans on service in the armed forces.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the change Thursday, calling it "the right thing to do" and "another step in ensuring we continue to recruit and retain the most qualified people."
Speaking at a Pentagon press conference, Carter said, "Our mission is to defend this country, and we don't want barriers unrelated to a person's qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission."
He said only a person's qualifications should matter and there should be no unrelated barriers to service.
"The reality is that we have transgender service members serving today,” Carter said, explaining that 2,500 people out of 1.3 million active duty service members are transgender.
"Americans who want to serve and can meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete to do so," he added.
The new policy also allows military members to transition gender while serving and receive related medical care at military facilities.
The policy will be adopted over the course of a year, but starting immediately, transgender service members "may no longer be involuntarily separated, discharged or denied reenlistment solely on the basis of gender identity," the Pentagon said. By Oct. 1, they can begin formally changing their gender identifications in the Pentagon's personnel system.
And a year from now, he said, the military services will begin allowing transgender individuals to enlist, as long as they meet the required standards and have been stable in their identified gender for 18 months.
Carter's announcement comes despite concerns from senior military leaders that the department is moving too fast and that more time is needed to work through the changes. He said he discussed the plans extensively with his military leaders, and based on their recommendations, he made adjustments to the timeline. He said he has been told that the services now support the timeline.
Last July, Carter said he intended to rescind the ban, calling it outdated. He has long argued that the military must be more inclusive to bring in the best and brightest.
At the time, he ordered a six-month study to include extensive medical and scientific research and discussions with other nations and companies with experience in the process. He extended the study because the military wanted more time. Officials said he wanted to insure there was no impact on military readiness, but over time, he became frustrated with the slow progress.