US military to accept transgender recruits from Jan 1: Pentagon

US marines salute during a handover ceremony at Leatherneck Camp in the Afghan province of Helmand.
US marines salute during a handover ceremony at Leatherneck Camp in the Afghan province of Helmand.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Transgender people will be allowed for the first time to enlist in the US military starting on Monday (Jan 1), as ordered by federal courts, the Pentagon said on Friday after President Donald Trump's administration decided not to appeal rulings that blocked his transgender ban.

Two federal appeals courts, one in Washington and one in Virginia, last week rejected the administration's request to put on hold orders by lower court judges requiring the military to begin accepting transgender recruits on Jan 1.

A Justice Department official said the administration will not challenge those rulings.

"The Department of Defence has announced that it will be releasing an independent study of these issues in the coming weeks. So rather than litigate this interim appeal before that occurs, the administration has decided to wait for (the) DOD's study and will continue to defend the president's lawful authority in district court in the meantime," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In September, the Pentagon said it had created a panel of senior officials to study how to implement a directive by Mr Trump to prohibit transgender individuals from serving. The Defence Department has until Feb 21 to submit a plan to Mr Trump.

Lawyers representing currently serving transgender service members and aspiring recruits said they had expected the administration to appeal the rulings to the conservative-majority Supreme Court, but were hoping that would not happen.

Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement, "As mandated by court order, the Department of Defence is prepared to begin accessing transgender applicants for military service (on) Jan 1. All applicants must meet all accession standards."

In a move that appealed to his hardline conservative supporters, Mr Trump announced in July that he would prohibit transgender people from serving in the military, reversing Democratic former president Barack Obama's policy of accepting them.

Mr Trump said on Twitter at the time that the military"cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail".

Four federal judges - in Baltimore, Washington, DC, Seattle and Riverside, California - have issued rulings blocking Mr Trump's ban while legal challenges to the Republican president's policy proceed.

The judges said the ban would likely violate the right under the US Constitution to equal protection under the law.

The Pentagon on Dec 8 issued guidelines to recruitment personnel in order to enlist transgender applicants by Jan 1. The memo outlined medical requirements and specified how the applicants' sex would be identified and even which undergarments they would wear.

"There has been a tremendous amount of care, thought and planning that has gone into the policy that is set to go into effect on Jan 1 allowing transgender people to enlist," said Ms Jennifer Levi, a lawyer with gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy group GLAD.

Both GLAD and the ACLU represent plaintiffs in the lawsuits filed against the administration.

The Trump administration previously said in legal papers that the armed forces were not prepared to train thousands of personnel on the medical standards needed to process transgender applicants and might have to accept "some individuals who are not medically fit for service".

The Obama administration had set a deadline of July 1 of this year to begin accepting transgender recruits. But Mr Trump's defence secretary, General James Mattis, postponed that date to Jan 1, which the president's ban then put off indefinitely.

Mr Trump also has taken other steps aimed at rolling back transgender rights. In October, his administration said that a federal law banning gender-based workplace discrimination does not protect transgender employees, reversing an Obama-era position.

In February, Mr Trump rescinded guidance issued by the Obama administration saying that public schools should allow transgender students to use the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.