Activists hailed last month's decision by military officials to lift the ban on transgender troops as a major breakthrough in equality and fairness during a Capitol Hill event on Wednesday.

Now their focus shifts to making sure the change is implemented properly.

"Because there has been ignorance about what this means and what it entails, a lot of people have assumed that it will be complicated," said Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

"But like with the 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal, we have found the fears are bigger than the realities. The complications have been exaggerated, and not always on purpose."

On June 30, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced an end to the Pentagon's longstanding ban on transgender troops effective immediately and outlining plans for the military to pay for troops who want to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

The move drew criticism from conservative groups as an unnecessary social experiment, and Republican leaders in Congress have promised hearings on the issue in coming months.

But Wednesday's event, sponsored by the Palm Center just a few blocks from the Capitol, featured reflections from transgender troops and lawmakers about the meaning of the change. Democratic leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised the new policy as a way to strengthen the military, by allowing the most capable individuals to serve regardless of their backgrounds.

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., called it another historic milestone for all Americans.

"We got rid of 'don't ask, don't tell,'" he said. "We got rid of the transgender ban. We are becoming a more open and welcoming society. … But we always have to work harder to be more accepting of people who are not identical to us."

For transgender troops, the move means no longer having to worry about dismissal if their personal lives are made public.

Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Valenzuela recounted his decision to stay in the ranks and serve during the Iraq War even though gay and transgender troops were barred from service at the time. The deception added extra stress for him and his family during his deployment.

"I knew that if I was killed, my wife and children would not be the first ones notified, because of 'don't ask don't tell,'" he said. "And I knew I would be buried as a female, and that was crushing to me, because inside I've always felt a man."

"I'm very proud to serve my country still. I don't know when I'm going to retire, but the fact that I now have that choice is a wonderful thing."

Palm Center officials estimate about 13,000 currently serving troops are transgender. Activists said the repeal must be followed by acceptance from leaders and clear steps forward in coming months for ensuring equality to ensure the change has little effect on overall force morale and readiness.

That will include resisting calls to slow or delay any policy updates, officials said. They praised Carter for ordering an immediate repeal of the transgender ban, instead of opting for a future repeal date, saying it sends an immediate message of tolerance and acceptance.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at

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