(CNN) — The Pentagon said Thursday it was ending the ban on transgender people being able to serve openly in the U.S. military.
The announcement — which removes one of the last barriers to military service by any individual — was made by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who had been studying the issue for almost a year. The decision comes as the military has witnessed major changes in the role of women and the inclusion of gays, lesbians and bisexual service members in recent years.
“The Defense Department and the military need to avail ourselves of all talent possible in order to remain what we are now — the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” Carter said Thursday at the Pentagon.
“We don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or marine who can best accomplish the mission. We have to have access to 100% of America’s population,” he added.
“Although relatively few in number, we’re talking about talented and trained Americans who are serving their country with honor and distinction,” he said. “We want to take the opportunity to retain people whose talent we’ve invested in and who’ve proven themselves.”
Carter said the decision was “a matter of principle.”
“Americans who want to serve and meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete,” he said.
The ground work to lift the prohibition began last year when the secretary said he would study the “readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly.”
“This has been an educational process for a lot of people in the department, including me,” Carter said, describing his meetings with transgender service members.
Carter said the ending of the ban takes effect immediately and that no longer could a transgender person be discharged on that basis.
At the upper end of the estimates, there are as many as 11,000 transgender active duty service members and reservists who will be affected by the decision, according to a RAND Corporation study cited by the Pentagon.
Carter noted the Pentagon received input from transgender service members and experts and medical professionals outside the department. He also said at least 18 other countries allow transgender members to serve openly.
The move comes after gays, lesbians and bisexuals were allowed to serve openly in 2011 when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was ended. In 2015, the Family Medical Leave Act was extended to cover all legally married same-sex couples and the Defense Department amended its equal opportunity program “to protect service members against discrimination because of sexual orientation.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday he had a number of longstanding questions for the Pentagon that remained unanswered.
“In particular, there are readiness challenges that first must be addressed, such as the extent to which such individuals would be medically non-deployable,” Thornberry said in a statement. “Almost a year has passed with no answer to our questions from Secretary Carter. Our top priority must be warfighting effectiveness and individual readiness is an essential part of that.”
The Pentagon’s decision coincides with broader acceptance of transgendered individuals in the U.S., but also criticism from social conservatives.