WASHINGTON • US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has removed one of the final barriers to military service by lifting the Pentagon's ban on transgender people serving openly in the armed forces.
"Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly," Mr Carter said. "They can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender."
Thursday's decision pushes forward a transformation of the military that Mr Carter has accelerated in the last year with the opening of all combat roles to women and the appointment of the first openly gay Army secretary.
He made his feelings on ending the transgender ban clear last year, when he called it outdated and ordered officials across the military to begin examining what would need to be done to lift it.
When Mr Carter ordered that assessment, there were already thousands of transgender people in the military.
But until Thursday, most had been forced into an existence shrouded in secrecy to avoid being discharged, a situation much like that faced by gay men, lesbians and bisexuals before the lifting of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 2011.
GIVING CLEAR GUIDELINES
The lack of clear guidelines for how to handle this issue puts the commanders and the service members in a difficult and unfair position.
US DEFENCE SECRETARY ASH CARTER
Transgender people have been "deployed all over the world, serving on aircraft, submarines, forward operating bases and right here in the Pentagon", Mr Carter told reporters. "The lack of clear guidelines for how to handle this issue puts the commanders and the service members in a difficult and unfair position."
Mr Carter said the Pentagon would cover the medical costs of those in uniform who are seeking to undergo a gender transition, though it would expect new recruits who are transgender to spend at least 18 months in their transitioned gender identity before joining the military.
Lifting the ban on transgender people has faced resistance from some at the highest ranks of the military, who have expressed concerns over what they consider to be a social experiment that could potentially harm the military's readiness and effectiveness in combat.
While they kept silent on Thursday, Republicans in Congress were not. Senator Jim Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for the new policy to not be carried out until Congress could convene hearings.
And Representative Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, released a statement saying he would examine "legislative options to address the readiness issues associated with this new policy".
But several studies have concluded that lifting the ban is unlikely to have any appreciable effect on the readiness of the armed forces.
Estimates of the number of transgender service members vary, but the number most often cited is from a study by the Rand Corp and commissioned by Mr Carter. It found that out of the approximately 1.3 million active-duty service members, an estimated 2,450 were transgender, and every year, about 65 service members would seek to make a gender transition.
At least 18 countries already allow transgender personnel to serve openly in their militaries, Mr Carter pointed out. They include Britain, Israel and Australia.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE