Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday the Pentagon has updated its equal opportunity policy to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, putting it in the same category as discrimination based on race, religion, color, age and sex.
The change in policy, announced by Carter at a gay and lesbian pride celebration, gives U.S. military troops a broader range of choices in pursuing complaints if they believe they have been discriminated against based on sexual orientation.
The change brought the rules into conformity with the 2011 decision to end the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the military only if they did not openly acknowledge their sexual orientation.
"The Department of Defense has made a lasting commitment to living the values we defend, to treating everyone equally, because we need to be a meritocracy," Carter said in announcing the decision.
"We have to focus relentlessly on our mission, which means the thing that matters most about a person is what they can contribute to national defense," he added. "This is a commitment we must continually renew."
Civilian employees of the Defense Department were already protected against discrimination based on sexual orientation under equal opportunity laws. But uniformed personnel were covered under separate rules affected by the department's long-time ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.
That ban was lifted in 2011 and a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 provided some federal benefits to same-sex couples married in states where gay marriage is legal. The Pentagon has been working to bring its policies into line with the changes.
"With this policy revision, we are now ensuring that service members are afforded protection against discrimination in the Department's military equal opportunity program," said Navy Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesman.
Christensen said the military equal opportunity program gives troops greater access to a broader range of options for resolving discrimination complaints and gives commanders access to equal opportunity advisers during the complaint process.