US judge clears way for transgender military recruits to enlist

People holding up signs during a celebration for transgender soldier Chelsea Manning in the Castro District of San Francisco, California during a celebration for Manning's release on May 17, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A US federal judge on Monday (Dec 11) cleared the way for transgender people to join the military from Jan 1, denying a request from President Donald Trump's administration to delay the move.

The ruling will be seen as a blow to Trump, who in July sent out three tweets saying that transgender troops could not serve "in any capacity", citing "tremendous" medical costs and disruption.

Those messages, later followed by a formal White House memorandum, set off a roar of protest - with several service members and rights groups quick to sue. Already two federal courts have ruled against Trump's proposed ban.

Under a new policy first announced when Barack Obama was still in power, the Pentagon was supposed to start accepting transgender recruits on July 1 this year, but Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis pushed that back by six months to Jan 1 pending further review.

Then last week, the Justice Department asked a federal court to further delay the January start date while the legal battle plays out.

But US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled Monday that the government had not shown it would be "irreparably harmed" if the military begins to accept transgender men and women on Jan 1.

Government lawyers cited Lernes Hebert, an acting deputy assistant secretary of defense, as saying that meeting the January deadline would "impose extraordinary burdens on the department and the military services" because "there are considerable requirements associated with implementing this significant and complex policy change". Judge Kollar-Kotelly said she was not convinced.

In her ruling, she wrote that the government had failed "to acknowledge the considerable amount of time defendants have already had to prepare for the implementation of this particular policy".

"Defendants have had the opportunity to prepare for the accession of transgender individuals into the military for nearly one-and-a-half years," the judge wrote.

'Planning to prepare'

Pentagon spokesman Major David Eastburn said the military was "planning to prepare" for transgender people to enter the military from Jan 1, in accordance with federal court rulings.

White House spokesman Sarah Sanders referred questions on the matter back to the Pentagon and the Justice Department.

The Palm Center think tank, which focuses on sexual minorities in the military, said the Pentagon is ready to implement the new policy, noting that it had been doing the ground work for two years.

"That is longer than the preparation the military had for repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' and accession of openly gay Americans," the center's director Aaron Belkin said in a statement.

The number of transgender troops among America's 1.3 million active duty service members is small, with estimates topping out at 15,000.

Trump's July tweets caught observers and many in the military off guard, coming with little apparent coordination with the Pentagon.

The President's policy shift meant that transgender troops who were encouraged to come out under one administration suddenly faced getting booted under another - opening up a legal quagmire for the Pentagon.

Several senior military officials voiced unease over the policy shift, and the head of the Coast Guard said he would not "break faith" with transgender personnel.

Trump has said he did the Pentagon a "great favor" by banning transgender troops, saying the issue had been "complicated" and "confusing" for the military.

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