Donald Trump issued an order on Friday to ban transgender people from serving in the military except under "limited circumstances".
The White House said retaining troops with a history or diagnosis of "gender dysphoria" – those who may require substantial medical treatment – "presents considerable risk to military effectiveness and lethality."
"This new policy will enable the military to apply well-established mental and physical health standards … equally to all individuals who want to join and fight for the best military force the world has ever seen," the White House said.
The US president received recommendations from Jim Mattis, the Defence Secretary, in February for dealing with transgender individuals serving in the military.
He surprised the Pentagon’s leadership in a 2017 tweet when he declared he would reverse an Obama-era plan to allow transgender individuals to serve openly.
NEW: White House statement on transgender troops: Service by “individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria — presents considerable risk to military effectiveness and lethality." pic.twitter.com/6FWC522HZT
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) March 24, 2018
A number of federal judges have issued rulings blocking Mr Trump’s ban, and the Pentagon began allowing transgender recruits to seek enlistment in January.
The judges said the ban would likely violate the right under the U.S. Constitution to equal protection under the law.
On Friday, the Pentagon reaffirmed that it would continue to comply with federal law.
"(The Pentagon) will continue to assess and retain transgender service members," Pentagon spokesman Major David Eastburn said.
The new policy was promptly assailed by congressional Democrats and civil rights groups.
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House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted, "No one with the strength & bravery to serve in the U.S. military should be turned away because of who they are. This hateful ban is purpose-built to humiliate our brave transgender members of the military who serve with honor & dignity."
The American Civil Liberties Union called the ban "transphobia masquerading as policy".
What the White House released tonight is transphobia masquerading as policy, for the sole purpose of carrying out President Trump’s reckless and unconstitutional ban. It undermines the ability of trans service members to serve openly and military readiness as a whole.
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 24, 2018
"It undermines the ability of trans service members to serve openly and military readiness as a whole," it said on Twitter.
"This policy effectively coerces transgender people who wish to serve into choosing between their humanity and their country, and makes it clear that transgender service members are not welcome."
Earlier on Friday, Maj. David Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman, said the announcement of a new policy would have no immediate practical effect on the military because the Pentagon is obliged to continue to recruit and retain transgender people in accordance with current law.
The issue has become mired in a complicated string of political statements, court decisions and policy reviews since Trump first stunned his administration with his tweets last July. It’s unclear how much impact the court decisions will have on Trump’s decision. Activist groups had worried the administration could enact such strict enlistment and health care restrictions that it would become all but impossible for transgender troops to join or continue serving.
In brief | Transgender issues in the 21st Century
Under guidelines presented in December, the Pentagon could disqualify potential recruits with gender dysphoria, those with a history of medical treatments associated with gender transition and those who underwent reconstruction. Such recruits could be allowed in if a medical provider certified they’ve been clinically stable in the preferred sex for 18 months and are free of significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas.
Transgender individuals receiving hormone therapy must be stable on their medication for 18 months.
The requirements make it challenging for a transgender recruit to pass. But they mirror conditions laid out by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016, when the Pentagon initially lifted its ban on transgender troops serving openly in the military.