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Transgender Navy Officer Wins Waiver to Serve Openly

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Activist groups welcomed the waiver but emphasized that all trans military personnel deserve the right to serve.

The U.S. Navy has granted a waiver allowing a transgender service member to serve in their preferred gender, the first waiver approved since Donald Trump's trans military ban went into effect.

The officer was not identified by name but is one who has sued to challenge the ban, according to her attorneys. The lawsuit uses the pseudonym Jane Doe.

The news of the waiver was first reported by CNN. "The acting secretary of the Navy has approved a specific request for exemption related to military service by transgender persons and persons with gender dysphoria," Lt. Brittany Stephens, a Navy spokeswoman, told the network.

The Trump policy, which went into effect last year, reversing the lifting of the ban under President Barack Obama, requires most trans troops to serve in the gender they were assigned at birth and bars anyone serving in the military from transitioning. It also bans enlistment by people who are openly transgender. Branches of the military can grant waivers on a case-by-case basis.

The Navy member "requested a waiver to serve in their preferred gender, to include obtaining a gender marker change in [the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System] and being allowed to adhere to standards associated with their preferred gender, such as uniforms and grooming," Stephens told CNN.

The officer has served two extended tours of duty over nine years and was facing involuntary discharge because she is transgender, according to GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which are representing her in the suit. It was filed in March in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts and is the first suit to challenge the policy since it went into effect. The federal government was due to file its response to the suit next week.

Several other lawsuits had been filed before the ban went into effect. They not only challenged the policy but sought to block it while the suits proceed through the courts, but rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts allowed it to go into effect while the suits are heard.

"While we are relieved that our client, a highly qualified Naval officer, will be able to continue her service, there are other equally qualified transgender service members who have sought waivers and are still in limbo, despite being perfectly fit to serve," Jennifer Levi, director of GLAD's Transgender Rights Project, said in a joint press release with NCLR and SPART*A. "Dedicated military service members shouldn't have to bring a lawsuit to be able to continue doing their job."

"There is no basis for treating transgender service members differently by requiring them to seek a waiver that no one else has to obtain in order to continue to serve," said Shannon Minter, NCLR legal director. "While we are relieved for our client, requiring transgender service members to jump through this discriminatory hoop makes no sense and only underscores the irrationality of the ban. Being transgender has nothing to do with a person's fitness to serve, and transgender individuals should be held to the same standards as other service members."

"We are ecstatic both for the sailor and the breach of the waiver logjam," added Emma Shinn, president of SPART*A, which advocates for actively serving transgender military members, veterans, and their families. "I am hopeful that this is the first of many; but the fight is far from over."

The Modern Military Association of America, which with Lambda Legal has also filed a suit against the ban, praised the waiver but question the motives behind it. "The Navy's decision to approve a waiver to the Trump-Pence transgender military ban is an important victory for this sailor, even if we suspect the administration may be nefariously planning to misuse it to undermine our lawsuit challenging the ban," MMAA Legal and Policy Director Peter Perkowski said in a news release. "We will be watching closely to see if others are approved and how the Trump-Pence administration may attempt to weaponize the decision by falsely claiming the ban isn't a ban. MMAA is committed to ensuring the unconscionable Trump-Pence transgender military ban is overturned and any qualified transgender patriot is free to serve openly and authentically."

In their suit, Karnoski v. Trump, MMAA and Lambda Legal are challenging the constitutionality of the ban. The lawsuit represents six currently serving members of the armed services; three who seek to enlist; the American Military Partner Association, which merged with OutServe-SLDN to form MMAA; the Human Rights Campaign; and Gender Justice League.

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