President Biden reversed his predecessor’s ban on transgender troops serving in the military, administration officials announced Monday, moving swiftly into a social issue that has tangled the Pentagon over the past five years.
With Lloyd J. Austin III, his new defense secretary, by his side in the Oval Office, Mr. Biden signed an executive order restoring protections first put in place by former President Barack Obama that opened up the ranks of the armed services to qualified transgender people.
“What I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform,” Mr. Biden said from behind the Resolute Desk moments before putting his signature on the document.
The move was expected, as Mr. Biden indicated in November that he would work to restore the protections, which were reversed by former President Donald J. Trump.
But the swiftness signaled a willingness by the new Biden administration to put its own stamp on Defense Department social issues. It follows an announcement from Mr. Austin on Saturday that he was ordering up a review of how the Pentagon has been handling sexual assault issues.
Mr. Biden and the Defense Department leadership will also have to wrestle with a reckoning on race that is facing the Pentagon, where officials have had to confront a stark fact: close to one in five of the protesters who have been arrested for breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6 — many of them with links to white supremacist organizations — have ties to the American military.
On the transgender issue, advocacy groups that have been fighting the ban since it was announced three years ago — in a tweet from Mr. Trump — have argued that the Pentagon does not need to spend months studying how to allow transgender people to serve because it had already done so. One such group, the Palm Center, said in a policy memo last summer that the military could reopen to transgender people rapidly if ordered to do so.
“A big ship can take time to turn around, so often the Pentagon needs to study policy changes and move cautiously,” Aaron Belkin, the director of the Palm Center, said last July in an interview. “But this is the rare case where, since the military left inclusive policy for already-serving transgender personnel in place even as it implemented its ban, the switch is just waiting to be flipped.”
The Trump ban had essentially ended an Obama administration initiative to allow transgender troops to serve openly in the military.