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Pentagon secretly studying how to let nonbinary troops serve openly, report says

Sailors from the Singapore Area Coordinator (SAC) celebrated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Month 2017 with a symbolic Pride Walk June 30, 2017. (Christopher Veloicaza/Singapore Area Coordinator)
January 19, 2022

The Pentagon may be quietly researching how it can accommodate individuals who identify as nonbinary — neither exclusively male or female — to serve openly in the military.

Military.com reported Tuesday that the Department of Defense recently asked the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which conducts federally funded studies for the military, to research the issue of how nonbinary individuals can serve openly.

Nonbinary, or genderqueer, is a broad term that describes a number of different gender identities, including those who identify as a third gender that is neither male or female, identify with multiple genders, identify as having no gender (agender) or a fluctuating gender (genderfluid). Nonbinder individuals will often use personal pronouns other than he/she, him/her and mark their gender as “X” on forms that have that option.

There is no specific policy against nonbinary individuals openly serving, but there is also no official Pentagon policy acknowledging nonbinary individuals exist. While nothing is blocking nonbinary individuals from serving, no policies clarify gendered policies, such as what uniform to wear, what grooming standards to follow and where to shower and how fitness tests will be evaluated.

It is unclear how long IDA has been studying the issue of nonbinary individuals serving in the military. SPARTA, an organization that advocates for transgender troops in the military, has reportedly connected IDA researchers with a number of nonbinary service members this month.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bree Fram, the president of SPARTA, compared this new study of nonbinary military service to the 2015 study Rand Corp. carried out for the Pentagon before allowing transgender individuals to serve openly in the military.

“Speaking with non-binary troops and defense officials to understand what regulation changes may be necessary is a great first step,” Fram told Military.com. “We are hopeful this will allow non-binary individuals to serve authentically and realize their full potential in the military.”

In response to a Military.com request for comment, IDA referred questions to the Pentagon. The Pentagon declined those questions, stating, “at this time as we do not provide information that may or may not be part of the Department’s research efforts.”

Jennifer Dane, the executive director of LGBTQ military advocacy group Modern Military Association of America, also told Military.com that members of her organization have also spoken with IDA. Dane believes researchers began the first stages of considering open nonbinary service sometime last year.

Dane is hopeful IDA’s research will lead to more accomodating policies for nonbinary individuals but said “there’s going to be a lot of hurdles, more so than transgender, I think, because there’s no binary on it.”

New policies to accommodate nonbinary individuals would follow a trend in recent years of the military trying to make service more accessible to the LGBTQ community.

In 2011, under President Barack Obama, the military repealed its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, allowing gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals to serve openly.

In 2016, the Obama administration also opened up the ranks for transgender individuals, however the military reinstated a ban on transgender individuals in the military under President Donald Trump.

The Trump-era policy banned individuals with gender dysphoria from serving. Gender dysphoria is the medical term for a condition consisting of an individual’s conflict between their perceived gender and their sex at birth. In 2018, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the policy to allow transgender troops was damaging to the military’s readiness and lethality. Mattis also said those diagnosed with gender dysphoria also experience dangerous side effects such as suicide, anxiety, depression and drug addiction, and surgeries and therapies were not successful in alleviating those side effects.

Under the Trump-era policy, service members who identified as transgender but had been diagnosed as having gender dysphoria were eligible to continue serving but had to adhere to policies consistent with their biological sex.

Within days of taking office, President Joe Biden once again reversed the transgender service policies, allowing all transgender individuals to serve under their preferred gender marker.

The Biden administration has shown some moves towards accommodating nonbinary individuals in other government departments. In October, the State Department issued its first passport with an X-gender designation.