Members of the Virginia National Guard deployed on a rescue mission during flooding in 2012 on the Eastern Shore. (Photo by Capt. Clint Harris/Virginia National Guard)
The Virginia National Guard says it has adopted a Trump administration policy that went into effect last month banning transgender people from serving openly in the military.
In a statement outlining the guard’s policy, Major General Timothy P. Williams, the adjutant general, also adopted the Department of Defense’s widely-discredited assertion that the policy doesn’t actually ban transgender people from serving.
“Anyone who meets military standards without special accommodations can and should be able to serve,” he wrote in a letter, which a National Guard spokesman said was sent to several constituents and was first reported by the advocacy website ThinkProgress.
Advocates acknowledged state-level officials are limited in their ability to reject the policy, but say any claims that it’s not a ban are simply untrue.
“You can say you’re trans, but that is the extent of it,” says Lt. Col. Bryan Bree Fram, an active duty astronautical engineer in the Air Force who came out as transgender in 2016.
The policy grandfathers in an estimated 2,000 transgender people currently serving, but bars new recruits who have undergone medical treatment to change their biological sex and prevents existing members who have not begun transitioning from taking those steps or wearing the uniform of their choice.
“No one can come out, no one can join,” Fram said.
Governors in five states have said they will defy the ban and continue allowing transgender people to serve “to the greatest extent possible under the rules,” as a spokesman for Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee put it in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a former Army doctor who serves as the guard’s commander-in-chief and re-appointed Williams, opposed the policy during his campaign but had not commented publicly on it since he took office.
In an email Thursday, Northam’s press secretary, Alena Yarmosky, said Williams’ letter was “referring to the fact that as the combat reserve of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force, our Virginia National Guard is bound by Department of Defense policies and guidelines.”
Yarmosky said Northam remains opposed to Trump’s “transgender exclusion policy and joins the governors of several other states in committing to ensure every person, regardless of gender identity, can serve their community and our commonwealth in Virginia’s National Guard.” She did not elaborate on how that commitment might manifest itself.
A guard spokesman said the state doesn’t track how many trans members serve and otherwise referred questions about the policy to the Department of Defense.
While some governors have gone further to denounce the ban, advocates say their power to intervene is limited.
“It’s important that those states have made those statements and we appreciate their efforts,” said Fram, who serves as communications director for SPART*A, which represents transgender service members.
But she said the tight integration between the military and state guards means things like changing records and securing appropriate medical care go through a federal-level process.
“So for Virginia to say, ‘No, we’ll follow the national policy’ is unfortunate and we’d certainly love more states to come out and say we’re going to protect our people, but we need to get it fixed at the federal level, whether it’s judicial, legislative or executive action.”
This isn’t the first time Virginia’s National Guard has been drawn into a national debate around LGBTQ issues.
In 2010, after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” former Del. Bob Marshall said he would draft legislation banning gays from openly serving at the state level. (Marshall, a Republican from Prince William County, lost his seat in 2016 to Del. Danica Roem, the first openly trans person elected to state office.)
Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) said that while he opposed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he couldn’t support a deviation from federal policy.
“It is critically important that there be one set of rules for all our men and women in the military,” a spokesman told The Washington Post at the time.
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