The Defense Department has quietly begun looking into how it can allow troops whose gender identity is nonbinary to serve openly in the military, three advocates familiar with the situation told Military.com.
The Pentagon has asked the Institute for Defense Analyses, or IDA, which operates federally funded research centers, to study the issue, said the advocates, one of whom requested anonymity to disclose a sensitive topic.
Someone who is nonbinary identifies as neither male nor female, oftening using "they" and "them" as their pronouns and marking their gender as "X" on forms that have that option.
It is unclear exactly how long the research has been going on, but SPARTA, an advocacy group for transgender troops, put researchers in touch with several nonbinary service members this month.
SPARTA President Bree Fram, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, likened the effort to the study the Pentagon asked Rand Corp. to conduct in 2015 before lifting the ban on transgender people serving 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 said in a statement to Military.com. "We are hopeful this will allow non-binary individuals to serve authentically and realize their full potential in the military."
Jennifer Dane, executive director of LGBTQ military advocacy group Modern Military Association of America, said members of her organization have also spoken with IDA and believes initial conversations about open service by nonbinary troops began last year.
Asked for comment, IDA referred Military.com to the Pentagon, which declined to comment "at this time as we do not provide information that may or may not be part of the Department's research efforts."
There is no explicit ban on nonbinary service members, but there is also no official recognition of their existence or guidance about how they should adhere to gendered policies, such as what uniform to wear or where to shower.
Advocates say policies allowing transgender troops to serve openly have made it somewhat easier for nonbinary service members, but add they still face hurdles because there is no official recognition of nonbinary gender identities.
If policies are changed to allow nonbinary troops to serve openly, it would be the latest move to make the military more inclusive for LGBTQ people.
It's been just over a decade since the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the law that banned open service by gay, lesbian and bisexual troops.
In 2016, the Obama administration lifted a ban on transgender troops. Former President Donald Trump reinstated the ban in 2019, but President Joe Biden lifted it last year shortly after taking office.
Dane said she is hopeful the research on nonbinary troops will lead to policy changes, but expressed concern that "there's going to be a lot of hurdles, more so than transgender, I think, because there's no binary on it."
But as more people in younger generations identify as nonbinary, including in official documentation such as passports and driver's licenses, Dane said an open service policy will be crucial to recruitment and retention. A 2021 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found about 1.2 million U.S. adults identify as nonbinary 76% of whom are under age 29.
"To get the talent, obviously, you've got to kind of get with the times," Dane said.
Dane also pointed to a recent Air Force decision to allow email signatures to include someone's pronouns, including they and them, as "opening the door to further conversation" about nonbinary troops.
The Biden administration has taken steps to be inclusive to nonbinary people at agencies besides the Pentagon.
The State Department last year issued a passport with an "X" gender marker for the first time.
While stressing that he could not speak to the military's current research efforts, Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, which researches issues of gender and sexuality in the military, said he believes there are three categories of policies the military might have to consider as it looks into open nonbinary service.
The first are policies that likely won't need to change at all, such as nondiscrimination policies that already ban discrimination based on gender idenity.
The second are policies that could be made gender neutral, such as some uniform standards – changes Belkin said would benefit not just nonbinary troops but also female troops.
The third category are policies the military can't or won't make gender neutral, such as where to shower. In those cases, Belkin said, commanders could consult with the individual nonbinary service member about which gender's standards would be more appropriate to follow.
"The opponents to nonbinary service, just like they did for Don't Ask, Don't Tell and just like they did for Obama's transgender policy, they're going to insist that implementation is so complicated and so hard, in fact it's so complicated that it can't be done. That's complete bull----," Belkin said. "Implementation is not complicated. Period, full stop. The military could easily pull this off tomorrow. It would not be a big deal."