The Pentagon is setting in motion a plan to lift the longstanding prohibition on allowing transgender men and women to serve openly in the military.
During the next six months, top military officials will hammer out the details of a new policy that will allow active-duty troops to transition from one gender to another, addressing questions like:
-- When does a transgender service member begin adhering to a new dress code and grooming standards?
-- How will fitness standards change for transgender service members?
-- How will billeting rules apply to transgender troops?
-- Will the military health care system provide transgender troops with hormone replacement therapy or "gender reassignment surgery?"
While the details remain unresolved, Defense Secretary Ash Carter made clear that the Defense Department's policy will soon change. .
"The Defense Department's current regulations regarding transgender service members are outdated and are causing uncertainty that distracts commanders from our core missions," Carter said in a statement on July 12.
Carter has ordered the creation of a "working group" to study the issue over the next six months the identify any readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly. That will be led by acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson.
"At my direction, the working group will start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified," Carter's statement said.
Under current Defense Department regulations, transgender individuals are considered medically unfit for service and can be separated honorably if diagnosed with "psychosexual conditions, including but not limited to transsexualism, exhibitionism, transvestism, voyeurism, and other paraphilias," according to Defense Department Instruction 6130.03.
For now, any administrative discharges for those diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who identify themselves as transgender will require approval from Carson, Carter said. The high-level procedure that is likely to limit or effectively halt any of those discharges
"At a time when our troops have learned from experience that the most important qualification for service members should be whether they're able and willing to do their job, our officers and enlisted personnel are faced with certain rules that tell them the opposite," Carter's statement said.
"Moreover, we have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines — real, patriotic Americans — who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that's contrary to our value of service and individual merit," he said.
The announcement comes nearly four years after the 2011 repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy that allowed homosexuals to serve openly. In recent years, a small group of transgender service members have come forward to talk about the prohibition.
Advocates estimate that among the 2.2 million active duty and Reserve troops serving today, there may be up to 15,000 transgender individuals.
In some cases, military treatment facilities have filled prescriptions for hormone-replacement therapy and rejected them in some cases, advocate say.
"There needs to be a DoD wide policy," she said. "That policy ought to set a date at which a gender transition will take place in the service member's official military records, and that decision should be made by the service member and their medical team and their unit commander," Robinson said.
The biggest sticking point might be fitness standards, but Robinson suggests the military could follow the lead of the National College Athletic Association. The NCAA requires transgender women to undergo hormone replacement therapy for 12 months before competing in women's athletics. Transgender men are not permitted to compete as a women after starting hormone therapy, according to NCAA rules.
Some research suggests that transgender people are more likely than others to join the military.
For example, when Dwayne Villanueva joined the Army at age 17, he thought it would help to overcome the nagging desire to become a woman.
"It's a hyper masculine environment and I thought that by joining the military it would make me more masculine. I thought joining the military would help suppress those feelings or take them away, as far as wanting to be a female," Villanueva recalled in a recent interview.
"It didn't work," Villanueva said.
Today, Villanueva, an Army corporal at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, identifies as a woman, having changed her name to Laila, both legally and in official Army records.
"Currently I present as male, but the patients and other workers military and civilians alike, they view me as female and they use female pronoun. It's hard to conform to the male standards when you have people referring to you as a female.
The transition is "exciting and liberating," she said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.