A stronger, more equal military

Equal protection. It’s one of the most cherished principles of our constitutional tradition. Our nation has worked continually to break down barriers so all people may be equally protected by the laws. But the phrase “equal protection” has recently taken on a new meaning with the 2010 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and last week’s announcement that the Pentagon will allow transgender people to serve openly in the military.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the Pentagon’s ban on transgender people serving openly in the armed forces has come to an end. “Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly,” Carter said. “They can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender.”

As a result, persons of any race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity can provide equal protection to our nation through open, proud and equal service in our military.

The lifting of the ban resonates powerfully with two important and defining arcs of our nation’s history. The first is our steadily continuing recognition over the past eight decades that our armed forces are strengthened by equal, integrated inclusion of diverse Americans. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a significant step in that progress in 1941, when he issued an executive order guaranteeing equal opportunity for people of all races in the defense industry. Seven years later, President Harry Truman ordered an end to racial and religious discrimination in the military.

Similarly, although women have served in the military since the Revolutionary War, their role in defending our country has expanded significantly since the 1940s, including the recent historic decision to permit women to participate equally in all combat roles.

The inclusion of openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the military and now the welcoming of transgender service members continue that storied tradition, once again placing our armed forces in the vanguard of democratic change. And that history has been essential to maintaining our national security. With each change, our leaders have recognized, as Carter said last week, that our nation’s all-volunteer military force needs “all talent possible … to defend this country.”

But the announcement also reflects — and accelerates — society’s growing understanding of transgender people and their integration into all walks of life. From the new visibility of transgender students in our nation’s schools to the prominence of individuals such as Phyllis Frye, the nation’s first openly transgender judge, transgender people increasingly are seeking, and finding, public acceptance and support. Like others, transgender people yearn to be valuable, contributing members of society.

Sadly, they have too often been denied that chance. Particularly in the arena of employment, transgender people still face deeply entrenched bias. Far too often, employers refuse to hire a transgender person or retain an employee who transitions to live consistently with the employee’s authentic gender — no matter how well qualified or skilled the employee is — based on irrational fears and false stereotypes. As a result, transgender people face unemployment and poverty at shockingly high rates.

For women and other groups, being able to serve openly in our nation’s armed forces has created powerful opportunities to rebut negative stereotypes and demonstrate leadership. Now, transgender people will have that chance as well. Already, transgender individuals who have served in hiding are coming out of the shadows, eager to be role models and to show what they can achieve. In the words of U.S. Army Capt. Jennifer Peace, a transgender woman, “This is about recognizing that we are all equal, that transgender people can be reliable and trusted colleagues, and that gender is not a barrier to service.”

As it has done for other groups, open military service will show that transgender people can contribute in powerful ways to any workplace’s mission. They can be accepted by their supervisors and peers and by those they lead. They can be full members of our local and national communities. And they can contribute mightily to those communities, including by putting their lives on the line to uphold our nation’s values of democracy, freedom, and, yes, equal protection.

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