Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement just weeks before leaving office that he would bring an end to the policy of excluding women from combat assignments surprised, well, everyone. To call this move historic is to put it mildly. Today’s Huffington Post carried the following article on the last frontier’s of military equality: the ability of transgender service people to serve openly:
“Not long after that, he made history again, bringing a measure of equity to the benefits offered to same-sex military families before leaving D.C. to return to his much-loved walnut farm in California. History will remember Panetta’s tenure at the Defense Department favorably for these decisions to change policies that no longer reflected the reality of our wars or, just as importantly, the values of our nation.
“As a woman veteran, I was elated with these changes. As the wife of a woman veteran (my wife Danyelle was a West Point classmate of mine and served as an Army officer with honor and distinction), I felt encouraged by them.
“But as a transgender veteran, and an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) service members, veterans and their families, the changes that Secretary Panetta brought about in his last days in office have left me emboldened. Here’s why: As the combat exclusion for women comes to an end and open service for gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans edges closer to truly equal service, it becomes more and more obvious that there is no longer any rational basis on which to bar qualified transgender people from serving in our armed forces.
“At the heart of the combat exclusion rule were two assumptions that were accepted uncritically, if not quite universally, for decades. The first was that women are somehow, by our nature, “unfit” for close combat. The valorous service of America’s women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, asymmetric battlefields where the “front line” is everywhere and every trooper faces the risk of close combat every day, put the lie to that. So too did the military’s uncanny ability to find ways to circumvent the rules as it became apparent they were no longer working in the field. Today there are few more effective ways to reveal oneself to be an armchair general, out of touch with the reality of modern war, than by saying that women don’t have what it takes to hang on the battlefield.
“The second assumption underlying the combat exclusion was that the differences between men and women (real or, just as frequently, the product of sexist imagination) could not be accommodated under battlefield conditions without compromising the war-fighting effectiveness of the force. Steady advances in combat service support technology, techniques and procedures rendered all serious objections in this category obsolete long ago. (I refuse even to honor with a response those objections based not on quantifiable differences in the sexes but on chauvinist notions of a need to protect women, or to protect men from women.)
“With the stroke of a pen, Secretary Panetta consigned these two assumptions to the dustbin of history, where, along with military racial segregation and “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT), they can serve as embarrassing reminders of how easy it is to justify our prejudices in the name of security. However, it will be up to his successors to take the next logical step: the exorcism from DOD regulations of what is today a blanket, no-exceptions-allowed exclusion of all transgender people from service. Such a move is absolutely appropriate today, because the bottom line is this: If “valor knows no gender,” as President Obama said when the combat exclusion rule fell, and if men and women really can be accommodated simultaneously under close combat conditions without a negative impact on war-fighting ability, then there is no reason other than prejudice for the transgender exclusion to remain.”